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10 Steps to Ace Your Performance Review and Get a Mind-Blowing Raise

Piggy bankYou’re not reading this article because you’ve gotten the raise of your dreams. You’re reading it because a) you want the raise of your dreams b) you didn’t get the raise of your dreams and need corrective action or c) it ain’t gonna happen. To c), I say, maybe not.  But hey, at least I'm honest here.

However, there are concrete steps you can take to get the process in motion.  Sitting back, waiting for the firm to take all the action is most definitely a career rear-ender.  Why? You become a victim to your circumstances. The firm has all the power and you have nothing. It’s time you took action and learned to be the commander in your career. Well, as close to it as possible, anyway.

Here are 10 steps you can take to help ensure a positive review and great raise:

  1. Don’t assume the firm knows what you accomplished over the year. Make a list of specific accomplishments. The written evaluations handed out to attorneys are not always the best tools to prompt memories of why you deserve a raise. In fact, anyone evaluating you can only remember what you did over the past three months, not the entire year. You need to prepare the firm for your evaluation, not the other way around.

  2. If you think you deserve more money, be prepared to prove it. Remember, you’re in a law firm. You’ll have to prove your case. You need to show your boss the value you added to the firm and point out specific instances you went above and beyond the call of duty.

Ideally, you should keep a log of significant contributions made over the year. Show how you contributed to the win of a case, found a significant witness, helped on a major merger, or showed leadership under pressure. Use as many details as possible, such as numbers and facts. Take at least five - six of the biggest impact contributions and present them in a bulleted list.

If your job description has changed over the past year or you've taken on added responsibilities, include those with your list of accomplishments. If you've recently completed training or received an advanced degree benefits the firm, be sure to point that out. To drive home your case, make copies of e-mails or memos from supervisors, clients or colleagues praising your performance.

  1. Remember: your pay raise is based on your contribution to the firm over and beyond the norm. It is not based on tenure or years of experience. You are not entitled to one simply because another year has passed. Just because you have 10 years of experience with the firm does not mean you should get a raise. You don’t get a raise for hanging in there, suiting up and showing up each day. Nor do you get a raise for doing your job. You’re expected to do your job. That’s why you’re getting the salary you’re getting now. You get a raise for going beyond the norm.

Do not bring your personal financial situation into the discussion. Your boss doesn't care if your rent has gone up, your commute is longer, you've got tuition to pay for or your spouse isn’t working. When handing out raises, the firm only cares about the bottom-line and whether you are profitable. Only ask for a raise if you truly deserve it -- not because you need it.

  1. Speaking of profitability: Do you know if you are profitable? Are you a paralegal who has met and exceeded your minimum billable hourly requirement? If you only met your required hours, you did not do anything outstanding. Do you know what those numbers are? How much of your time was written off and why? These are numbers you should have your hands around. It can be an indicator of quality of work product. A paralegal expecting a substantial raise that isn’t profitable is not likely to see a huge increase.

  2. Find out how your salary compares. You'll need to tell your boss exactly how much you'd like to get paid. Don’t expect outrageous percentages of increases. For example, 2-3% increases are normal raises. Asking for a 20% increase might be a stretch if you are being paid market rate and cannot justify the increase. When you know what others in your practice specialty are paid and what your position is worth, you can use that figure as a starting point for negotiations.

  3. Firms are not paying for years in the field. They pay for performance. You can be a 10 year paralegal but performing at the four-year level. Have you progressed in the past few years? Are you up-to-date on the latest technology? Did you bring a new skill to the firm? Are you doing more sophisticated work now or, are you doing the same assignments you were doing two years ago? If you are doing the same, on what basis would the firm justify a significant raise? None. Think about it.

  4. Consider negotiating benefits and perks. A raise doesn't have to come in dollar signs. So before entering negotiations, think of other areas you are willing to negotiate such as extra vacation, flexible hours, or a real office with four real walls that reach the ceiling and a door that actually closes instead of three felt-lined walls compliments of Ikea. Or, bargain for telecommuting or a week at a professional conference in Hawaii, poolside, of course.

If the benefits and perks are more important than money, include them in the forefront of your pitch. Some firms will not negotiate benefits or perks. Find out. But if your firm can, keep a couple of possible perks in your back pocket just in case your boss says "no" to a monetary raise. This will give you something else to bargain with if negotiations stall.

  1. Bargain for a title. You can take it with you when you leave. It costs the firm nothing to give it to you and in fact, gets them more revenue as they can increase your billing rate. Senior Paralegal sounds much better than Paralegal and if that’s on your resume, you are likely to get more money in your next position. “It can be worth up to $10,000 or more in your pocket”, says Chris Donaldson, CEO of Career Images, a prestigious recruiting firm in Los Angeles. “Learn to leverage your position. However, you have to be performing the assignments consistent with the title.”

  2. Time your pitch right. If your annual performance review isn't any time soon, approach your firm after you've done well on a project or taken on extra responsibilities. This makes your case much easier to present because the firm already has a positive, recent experience and is excited about you right now. Immediately after a case settles in your client’s favor, a big merger is accomplished, a real estate deal ends favorably or a project goes extremely well, is an excellent time to approach the firm for a raise. You don't want to allow time to go by and then your supervisor has forgotten what an asset you are.

  3. When making your case, don't compare yourself to your co-workers performance or salaries. Don’t try saying “I’m better than John” and use that as a bargaining chip. Furthermore, if you've only been at your entry-level job for a year, expecting a hefty bonus, substantial raise or prestigious promotion is probably unrealistic unless you really, truly outdid yourself. Going into negotiations with a sense of entitlement may actually hurt your chances. Don’t toss out to your boss what someone else makes, either. It doesn’t matter what Joe or Sue is earning. Each employee is evaluated on their own merits.

Bonus tip:             Oh, and don't threaten to quit unless you really mean it. If you give your boss an ultimatum -- "Give me a raise or else" -- you just may find that "or else" is your only option. I’ve known employers who stand up, open the door and show the employee the way out. That’s when the firm calls me.  So much for playing that card!

There are a number of reasons your boss may turn down your request, but if it's because there simply isn't enough money available, shift gears. “Suggest an upgrade in your position,” says Donaldson. "It's easier for your firm to rationalize a higher salary if your job description is changed to include higher-level assignments. They can also bill you at a higher rate to justify the salary increase. And most importantly, you can always ask to reopen negotiations in a few months.”

Chere B. Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing. She is a recipient of the LAPA Lifetime Achievement Award; President and Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP), CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute, a national seminar speaker and author of 10 books on legal careers. She has been written up in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Chicago Trib, Daily Journal and other publications. Her blog, The Estrin Report has been around since 2005. Ms. Estrin has been a top executive in a $5 billion corporation, paralegal administrator in two major law firms and is a Co-Founding member of the International Paralegal Management Association. She is an Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist, Los Angeles/Century Women of Achievement Recipient and lots of other stuff. You can reach out to her at She's usually free from 3am to 6am on Sundays.

Chere B. Estrin ©2016 Reprints by permission only

How to Alienate a Recruiter and Bust Your Career

Interview2It’s that time again. We struggle as to whether it’s time to change jobs, hang in there or be thankful we’re in the best firm in the world. Well, maybe the best.  OK, the best so far.

Working with a good recruiter can make your career.  Here’s the inside scoop: Recruiters, and I am talking about the staffing agency kind, hold the keys to literally hundreds of contacts they have built up over the years. They have the ears of the hiring authorities of the very firms you want to get into. Those who don’t understand the power and value of a good recruiter or who dismiss them, mistreat them or otherwise abuse them are in for a huge surprise.  Are you one?

Here are the reasons recruiters are extremely valuable to your career whether or not you are seeking a new position:

  1. Top recruiters have backgrounds as former administrators, paralegal managers, senior paralegals, attorneys or litigation support managers. They know this field inside and out.
  2. Top recruiters are connected to hundreds of top hiring authorities. They have long-term, personal relationships they have carefully cultivated. They have the ears of hiring authorities and confide in them which candidate is a good hire and which ones are not. They hold the keys to opening doors for you.
  3. They can get you into a firm utilizing their contacts when simply sending a resume through a job board won’t work. They personalize the message to the hiring authority and give their opinion. They have interviewed and screened you first. They stake their reputation on whether you are good.
  4. You don’t know when you are going to seek a position. Having a recruiter in your back pocket is the best career safety device you can have.
  5. They can tell you which firms are best suited for you. They can help gear your resume towards the position rather you trying to shoot in the dark. They give you the facts on the firm rather than having you guess. They know exactly why the position is open, turnover rates, percentage of raises, whether bonuses are actually given, how much, level of sophistication of assignments and in short, a reality burst.
  6. You can call them at raise time and find out the going market rate. They know what the firms are giving. You don’t even have to be looking. You have a contact that will be honest with you.

Here are 5 of the biggest mistakes you can make in alienating recruiters, how to get them on your side and how to upgrade your career – all through making a new best friend:

Mistake Number One: You’re contacted by a recruiter –You ignore an email inquiry or phone call.

Don’t be arrogant! So you’re not looking for a job right now. Are you so secure that you know what’s going on in the Executive Committee? You know without a doubt that you’re not going to be downsized, merged or otherwise purged? First of all, recruiters have advanced warning on your firm. They know if the firm is merging before you do. They know if a number of people are bailing. You don’t.

Secondly, how do you know that they don’t have a better opportunity for you? Have you thought about your future? I can’t tell you how many people don’t make the connection and in a short period of time are unexpectedly searching for a position. Just try calling that recruiter back after the royal snub. Trust me. They keep meticulous records. They know when they’ve been brushed off, treated rudely and they keep loooong records. You come off as a) self-important b) uncooperative and c) insulting. Hardly makes for a cohesive relationship. Bear in mind, top recruiters are very selective in who they deal with. Frankly, if they selected you, you might be flattered........

Mistake Number Two:  You think the recruiter works for you.

Recruiters work for employers, not job hunters. They are usually paid from 15 – 25% of the annual base salary from the employer. Their job is to find the best talent with precisely the right requirements for the job. They aren't paid to help people transition to new fields. To be sure, they help individuals whom they are able to place, but their primary responsibility is not to be a career counselor or coach job seekers. On occasion, a stellar candidate can be “skill marketed”, i.e., shopped to a firm who is not necessarily seeking a candidate but may be interested in your skills. This, however, is only done for exceptional candidates with extraordinary skills. This is why you may not be hearing from recruiters and instead hear, “Nothing has come in”. I know how frustrating that is and I know how you want them to want you.

Mistake Number Three: You stand the recruiter up. BIG mistake.

Why some candidates just stand up a recruiter is beyond me.  It is the same as if you stand up an employer. These  candidates simply think that it’s “just the recruiter” and is not that important.  Believe me. It’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make.

Recruiters set aside at least a half an hour of valuable time for you. This is their sales time. It also shows what kind of candidate you are along with what kind of professionalism you have. I don’t care what the excuse is. A simple one line email to cancel the appointment will save your career. Recruiters are not likely to reschedule you. Why? You’ll do the same to their clients, you’ve wasted their time, and you’re not as “hot” as you think you are. Believe me. You think there are other recruiters and it doesn’t matter? This recruiter may have already talked to a firm about you and now you’re dead at that firm.  You don’t know. Remember, you’ll meet them elsewhere and you're starting to get a not-so-good reputation as a, yes....flake. They’ll remember how you treated them. Don’t alienate a recruiter. They have the ears of hundreds of top hiring authorities.  Simply moving on to another recruiter is not that easy if you’ve alienated the top ones and truthfully, while there are lots of recruiters out there, there are few top recruiters. You really want a top recruiter. This is your career you're playing with.

Here's a great example: I have a colleague who was a recruiter at a top New York recruiting firm. He was there for years. Great guy. He went on to be an HR administrator at  a top ten law firm and part of his job is recruiting litigation support and technical professionals nationwide. Every time he receives a resume from someone who was rude to him, stood him up, was a problem to work with at the recruiting firm, guess what? Do you think they get in at his firm now? Bingo!!! 10 points for you! Right answer. Uh, no. If you answered, yes they do, please go back to square one.

I have had candidates email me with outrageous excuses why they stood me up. One great excuse was, “My nanny didn’t show up, so I had my kids all day. I thought it was Thursday, not Friday, so I missed my interview.” Great. Someone I can really rely on to tell what day it is.  Another said, “I had to study for a test.” OK.  Don’t schedule the interview. You’ve just wasted my time. I am not sympathetic. I don’t reschedule. I move on to more professional candidates who treat me with respect.

Mistake Number Four: You don’t give the recruiter the true story.

Candidates who are not straight-forward with recruiters are asking for trouble. If you don’t give the right story why you are seeking a position, the correct salary information, the real reasons you left your positions and more, you are killing your chances because you will be found out. The recruiter has to guarantee the placement for a certain length of time or refund the money if you don't work out. They also check your background. That means they have to know the truth. It's better they found out from you first.

The recruiter will help you in your answers to the firm. The firm can legally check salary history, reasons for leaving and whether you are eligible for rehire. When a candidate tells me they “don’t know how much they are making”, I am highly suspicious. What??? Are you serious? This is a candidate hiding something. I had a candidate tell me that they had to go home and figure it out. Right. You don’t know if you are making in the $60’s, $70’s or $80’s? Uh, oh. Someone I really want at the helm. "Hello, Mr. Employer? I am presenting this great candidate. He doesn't know how much money he makes but he sure does summarize a great deposition." Hmmm......That sure makes me look good.

Mistake Number Five:   You try to go around the recruiter and negotiate your salary.

Top recruiters are good negotiators. They know what the firm’s bottom-line is and what your bottom-line is. They know what the firm’s top paralegal is earning and how to negotiate with the firm. Let them negotiate for you. Don’t try to do it on your own. The firm expects to negotiate with the recruiter, not you. It is always best to have a third-party negotiate as there are no hard feelings when you walk through the door on the first day. Also, you’re most likely to get more money as the more you get, the more the recruiter is paid.  Be sure your recruiter is experienced and an expert in negotiations.

I recall a candidate who was the testiest candidate I ever worked with. He flew to an out-of-state location for a high-paying position and unbeknownst to me, walked into the interview with a demand for approximately $20,000 in relocation fees during the first interview! The firm was so taken back, they immediately disqualified him. Well, let me be honest, his personality turned out not so great, either……. Word to the wise - let your recruiter handle salary  negotiations.

Bonus Mistake: You are an employer who keeps dismissing recruiter calls and mistreating recruiters.

Here’s the deal, folks. You don’t know when you’re going to need a new job. Enough said.

Recruiters are crucial to your career success. Make friends with them. Keep them in your back pocket. While they are not there to give you career coaching, they are valuable resources. Be sure to send them great candidates and introduce them to the hiring authorities in your firm. They are in it for the long-term relationship. I have candidates and employers whom I have had the most fantastic give and take relationships with for twenty years (or more). I am grateful for them and help them at a moment’s notice. It’s the gift that keeps on coming.

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing; President and Co-Founding member of the Organization of Legal Professionals, a non-profit online training company for eDiscovery and CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute, an online training organization.  She has written 10 books on legal careers and has been interviewed by Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, Daily Journal, Above the Law and others. She is a Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner, a New York City Paralegal Association Excellence Award Winner, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce/Century City Women of Achievement Award Recipient and finalist of the Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Her blog, The Estrin Report has been around since 2005. She is a former Paralegal Administrator at two major law firms and executive in a $5 billion corporation. She has free time on Sundays between 3:00am and 6am. Reach out at