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Not all lawyers will be celebrating the outcomes of their 2010 performance and salary reviews. Briana Everett reveals what steps to take for those left disappointed.As the economy improved and…

Not all lawyers will be celebrating the outcomes of their 2010 performance and salary reviews. Briana Everett reveals what steps to take for those left disappointed.

As the economy improved and the doom and gloom of redundancies and salary freezes started to dissipate, hints of lawyer pay rises began to surface in the first half of 2010.

However, while the market has improved, this year's salary reviews will not deliver the pay rise expected by many lawyers who have ridden out the GFC, causing many unhappy lawyers to look elsewhere and canvass their options.

Great expectations

Although many lawyers have withstood salary freezes for an extended period, the economic recovery is slow and expected pay increases didn't materialise. Recruitment consultants caution lawyers to temper their expectations in the current climate.

"Lawyers need to recognise that we're still not out of the woods," says managing director of Mahlab Recruitment (NSW), Lisa Gazis. "There is still a lot of uncertainty. While there is optimism, [lawyers] are not necessarily going to get massive premiums by making a move. They still need to be realistic about their expectations," she says.

Taylor Root's Matt Harris agrees and recognises there will be a lot of disgruntled lawyers in the market at the moment. "I suspect firms aren't going to meet the expectations of their staff because in a lot of cases, the expectations are set too high," he says. "I think any expectation that this year [lawyers] are suddenly going to get two year's worth of salary reviews in one go is unrealistic."

With many recruiters saying the expectations of many lawyers are unrealistic, Laurence Simons' Ruth Salamon says she can understand why lawyers feel they might deserve a larger than average increase, given the tough times they have endured. But she points out that despite market improvements, it's unreasonable to expect employers to make up for lost time as it is not commercially viable.

"There is no question that companies and firms are recovering and some are even doing incredibly well. However, none of them have a big enough pot of gold to allow for double the standard pay rise that one might have received in 2007. It's just not viable," she explains.

Think before you leap

With unmet expectations, recruitment consultants warn of the temptation amongst lawyers to make rash decisions following an unfavourable review and emphasised the importance of assessing the situation first.

According to Gazis, it is incredibly important for lawyers to think about exactly why they want to move, whether they are prepared to leave over money and to be certain that it is in fact the right move to make before jumping ship. "What we're seeing is a lot of people making very quick decisions and then regretting them very quickly," she says. "[Lawyers] must assess how dissatisfied they are and what they want to do. I would do some very careful thinking before making the decision."

Although missing out on a pay increase is a significant driver for lawyers, Harris reminds them that things may not be perfect elsewhere. "You may end up with an increased salary but you might not end up in an environment you want to be in," he says.

For lawyers left underwhelmed by their salary review, Gazis suggests the first step should be for them to discuss their salary with a supervising partner. "Be very clear and have an outline as to why you're dissatisfied," she advises. "Prepare and know what you have contributed that perhaps might not have been taken into account in the review. Have in your mind a figure. You need to know what you're hoping to achieve. Talk frankly and honestly."

By doing this, Gazis says lawyers can exhaust all their options before moving on, which is important when both parties have invested so much time in a career. "At the end of it all, if you feel you're not happy, for whatever reason, you're disengaged and the time has come for a new role," she says.

Making the move

After establishing it's time to move on, Harris says there is no reason to wait. The market is more buoyant than ever and with a huge demand for candidates, he believes that by marketing their services elsewhere, lawyers will be able to land the role they want.

"There are an awful lot more jobs than there are candidates, so their skills are absolutely in demand, at a level that we haven't seen for two years," he says. "The market is back at pre-GFC levels in terms of the disparity between the number of candidates and the number of vacancies."

With such competition for talent, Harris says some firms are already offering sizeable sign-on bonuses and are looking for staff across almost every discipline. "There has got to be a premium paid to attract new members of staff. If you're not happy with your salary, leave and go somewhere else where you'll get what you want," he says.

However, while there are plenty of opportunities out there, Harris advises lawyers to get a move on earlier rather than later. "Do it now before other people that are also disillusioned with the firm they're currently with make the same decision that you're making," he says.

The talent war is on

Despite disappointment over salary, whether someone stays or goes depends on how lawyers feel they have been treated over the last couple of years, according to Harris.

"Some [firms] have handled the whole thing very well and will probably retain a lot of their staff. But other firms may not have handled it quite so well and those firms will have issues," he says.

Employers should address training and development in an attempt to alleviate the fear of losing disgruntled staff following a salary review, according to Salamon.

"I have a number of candidates who feel that training and development has really taken a back seat over the past 18 to 24 months, which clearly affects lawyers' career progression ambitions," she says. "So a re-focus on individual goals and plans for achieving those career goals will go a long way to retaining staff."

Salamon points out that although salary is a significant focus for employees following the economic crisis, according to a recent survey conducted by Laurence Simons, the number one employee benefit that candidates consider when evaluating a new role is annual leave (25 days or more).

"It comes back to the things that employees have always sought. In fact, the number one reason that we hear, for leaving a job, is career development, closely followed by wanting a new challenge and then better quality of work," she says.

Being open with staff about the current position of the firm will also go along way to retaining staff and keeping them happy, says Harris.

"Looking forward in a positive way, rather than what they shouldn't do and say nothing. I think they should be fairly open with people and explain the business case behind the salary increases [or no increase] that were made," he says. "I think when people realise their firm has been upfront with them, that goes a long way to making people realise that life isn't that bad and maybe to move purely for money is a little bit cold."

Good times ahead

In the wake of the 2010 salary reviews, the new financial year will begin with a lot of discussion amongst unhappy lawyers who are considering their next move. But despite that, Harris says those ready to move can do so with confidence and most likely get the money they want.

"It's an amazing market. Absolutely amazing. For a candidate it's the most buoyant market I have ever seen."

Like this story? Read more:

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

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