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 chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com. She's usually free from 3am to 6am on Sundays.

Chere B. Estrin ©2016 Reprints by permission only