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Negotiating Your First Law Job: Which Offer to Accept

The interview season is over and you have three job offers.

One is from BigLaw in Manhattan, a dazzling, dizzying opportunity coupled with a salary that (you believe) would end all of the financial insecurity you’ve experienced after 7 years of part-time jobs; student loans; and, macaroni and cheese dinners.

The other offer is from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. where you’ve been promised early trial experience and your own case load during your first year.  The salary is livable but you’ve got enormous student loans to pay back.  Still, you’ve always wanted to stand in a courtroom, look Jack Nicholson in the eyes and say, “I want the truth!!”

Your last job offer is from a mid-size firm in your own home town.  You really like the people you met with there and you can see yourself spending an entire adult life with them.  Getting married, raising a family.  The local schools are good and the chance to build your own “book of business” is better here than in D.C., Manhattan, Los Angeles, Chicago or San Francisco.  You’d be a big fish in a little pond, not to mention remaining close to your extended family.

What to Do?

We have no specific advice.  We do want to alert you to Bazerman’s and Malhotra’s chapter on cognitive biases in their new book, Negotiation Genius, and particularly their section on


(note to readers:  whenever the word “McKinsey” appears, think Skadden, or whatever law firm would most  dazzle your professors and classmates if you told them you’d been offered a job there).

Apparently, many Harvard MBA students change jobs very quickly after accepting their first position.  Why?  One important reason is the effect of the “vividness bias.”   They explain:

Specifically, [the student job seekers] pay too much attention to the vivid features of their offers and overlook less vivid features that could have a greater impact on their satisfaction.  This is a potential trap even for seasoned negotiators.

M & B go on to conduct a little thought experiment, imagining their students talking about their job offers and, more particularly, the following attributes of those offers:

  • great medical benefits
  • proximity to extended family
  • high degree of happiness apparent in the offeror’s employees
  • opportunity to travel to Europe on a regular basis
  • $140K starting salary
  • employees have a significant degree of control over work assignments
  • the office space is comfortable; the environment inviting
  • the offer is from McKinsey
  • I would not have to travel too much

You know what’s coming next.

Which of these statements will travel most quickly through the MBA student grapevine, conveying the highest degree of prestige upon the  job-seeker.

For all of our knowledge and sophistication, we’re pretty simple creatures.  Bazerman and Malhotra believe that “the answers to these questions are the high salary ($140,000) and the offer from McKinsey (a top consulting firm).”  They continue:

These two items are not only the easiest to communicate quickly, but also the easiest for others to evaluate.  Students who receive these offers will notice the impressed reactions of their peers when such information is shared, and these reactions will make the information more prominent in their mind[s].  As conversation after conversation focuses on these two factors, other aspects of the offer will be overshadowed or entirely sidelined.

One result:  students accept — and soon quit — high paying jobs with prestigious firms because they over-weighted vivid or prestigious attributes of their offers and under-weighted  other issues that would affect their professional and personal satisfaction, such as office location, collegiality, and travel.

Malhotra and Bazerman’s suggested solution to counter the vividness bias is to create a scoring system that assigns “weights” to job attributes.  They suggest that a professional job seeker “who does not have at least five to ten issues ranked and weighted in her scoring system is probably not thinking rationally enough about all of the important issues in her job negotiations.”

When performing this rigorous, logical, left-brained analysis of your job offers, remember what we recently learned from the Neuromarketing Blog’s recent post on the new (must read) book — The Best of the Brain.

the left hemisphere of the brain tends to screen creative thoughts from the right hemisphere. Too much screening, and creativity is stifled; too little, and useless ideas can’t be eliminated. Creativity also requires topical knowledge and a detailed examination of the problem. While there’s no simple path to creative thinking for most of us, Kraft concludes by recommending that relaxing and stepping back from the problem are often helpful in letting the brain do its work.

To conclude our series on job hunting for lawyers, I leave you with the the following list of dangers and pit-falls based upon my own experiences and those of my colleagues, all of whom have been practicing law for at least twenty-five years.

  • property, power and prestige are the most dangerous siren-songs to follow (seethe Cost of a Thing is Your Life);
  • if you’re one of those people who believes you can take a BigLaw job, save your excess salary and then move “down” to a more congenial firm, just make sure you have the mental toughness to do so — I have seen many lawyers “trapped” by the lifestyle this salary can afford them — I know dozens who have been miserably stuck there for years if not decades;
  • your mom and dad really will continue to love you no matter what you do; you do not have to take an impressive job to prove to them that the kid who could never keep his room clean is all grown up now and a credit to his family; and,
  • money can’t buy it (Annie Lenox)

Congratulations on the job offers.

Choose wisely and well.  It’s a great profession; one you and your family can be proud of of; and one you will never ever completely master — meaning it will continue to astonish, trouble, bedevil and reward you for the rest of your life.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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