How to Tactfully Negotiate for Higher Compensation & Benefits – The Woman’s Guide

By Danielle Bello

When I was in college, I worked at a music store and I remember, like it was yesterday, telling a customer that I was studying for the LSAT. The first thing out of his mouth was, “ are you sure? The legal field is vicious, especially for a girl like you.” I politely and nervously laughed it off, not fully understanding his imbalanced perception of “ the legal field.” Fast forward to 2015, when I read Lean In, Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. I’ m pretty sure it changed my perception of how to act at work. Every time I re-read the book, I learn more about how handling myself in systematic ways alters the way I am treated and perceived by both males and females in the workplace. Specifically, I thought that sharing some of Sandberg’ s insights from the book and my own independent research on the issue of how women can strategically, tactfully and (hopefully) successfully negotiate for higher compensation and benefits would be an interesting article to write for this edition of the Women’ s Bar Association of Illinois Newsletter.

Do not accept the opening offer.

When it comes to an opening offer, women in the workplace often find themselves in “ damned if they do” and “ doomed if they don’t” situations.1  If, for example, on the one hand, a woman gets an offer and counters with a separate blanket offer (a counter offer with a new set of specifics, with no justifications as to where she got those numbers or specifics), she opens herself up to perceptions that she is difficult to work with; on the other hand, if she accepted the opening offer, she is limiting herself financially and in the future. By and large, men negotiate more than women.3  A study that looked at the starting salaries of students graduating with a master’ s degree from Carnegie Mellon University found that 57 percent of the male students, but only 7 percent of the female students, tried to negotiate for a higher offer.4

There are many reasons why women may not negotiate or attempt to do so. Some theories are that men are expected to advocate on their own behalf, whereas women are expected to be concerned with others. Consequently, when women advocate for themselves or point to their own value or personal achievements, both men and women react unfavorably to that woman. Interestingly, women can negotiate as well as or even more successfully than men when negotiating for others (such as their company or a colleague), because in these cases, their advocacy does not make them appear self-serving.5 It is when the woman is negotiating on her own behalf that the violation of gender norms is perceived.

This holds true in Sandberg’ s case and in the survey I conducted in researching this topic. When Sandberg was negotiating with Facebook’ s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg for her compensation, he made her an offer that she thought was “ fair.” In her book, Sandberg explains that she was reluctant in countering Zuckerberg’ s offer because she was “ afraid of doing anything that might botch the deal.”6 The night before she accepted the opening offer, her brother-in-law “ blurted out, ‘ Damn it, Sheryl! Why are you going to make less than any man would make to do the same job?’”7 His point was that that no man would consider taking the first offer. Thus, Sandberg went back and told Zuckerberg that she couldn’ t accept it, but instead countered. She first prefaced her offer by saying “ of course you realize that you’ re hiring me to run your deal teams, so you want me to be agood negotiator.”8 Then she stated her counter-offer and nervously waited until the following day for Zuckerberg to respond. He did, andhe resolved the gap by creatively offering extended terms of her contract and allowed her to buy into the company, as well. Even though her compensation counter-offer was not accepted, this solution helped set her up for longer-term alignment of interests, which ultimately closed the deal.9

Although Sandberg’s counter turned into a successful and acceptable offer, she was afraid of even countering in the first place, and she was already in a place of power (at that point she was Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google). But how does this affect women attorneys? For this, I conducted a simple survey amongst female attorneys and then divided up the survey pool by young attorneys and seasoned attorneys.

The young attorneys (less than three years practicing), by and large, never even attempted to counter their opening offer. When I asked why no counter was made, most responded they were just pleased to be working in the first place, felt they had to accept, or thought the offer was fair. They also felt that the employers knew the market was saturated and if the young attorneys did not accept, the offer would be revoked and given to someone else willing to accept.

Of the new attorneys, two stories stood out to me the most. One new attorney told me she sought advice from her career services department from her law school. They told her “ not to worry about [her] salary and just worry about getting the job.” Even putting the career services’ own statistical agenda aside, this is horrible advice. As attorneys, we should absolutely consider salary just as much as we consider the area of law, reputation, quality of life, or benefits. At the very least, most of us have loans hanging over our heads, so salary does matter! The second new attorney told me that she was not even informed what her salary or benefits were until her first day of work. Before she accepted the position, she asked another female attorney whether she should negotiate and was specifically informed not to “ because it puts [her] in an awkward position with [her] employer.”

Of the seasoned attorneys surveyed who did not counter during their initial offer phase, their reasoning was primarily because they had a salary range in mind and were ready to counter, but chose not to because the offer was either at the high-end of their range, or already over their desired range. Another possible reason among this group was because a formal performance evaluation was promised within the year and negotiations where to be held at a later time.

The overarching pattern that I found for both new and seasoned attorneys was that those that did not counter regretted it and wished they had attempted to do so. Specifically, the new attorneys who were afraid of having the offer revoked admitted that they would not want to work with that type of employer anyways, while the seasoned attorneys admit that although they were happy with the opening offer, they could have asked for more and likely obtained it due to their higher experience level. The point is, always attempt to counter. The worst that can happen is they revoke the offer, in which case you do not want to work for them anyways, or they say no and you can then decide whether to accept or decline.

Tactics for negotiating a counter-offer.

So now that we know to always counter, we want to know, how? When women negotiate, the saying “ think globally, act locally” can be construed as “ think personally, act communally.” When a woman negotiates for compensation or other work benefits, she has to employ different tactics than her male counterparts. One tactic is to preface negotiations by explaining that they know that women often get paid less than men so they are going to negotiate rather than accept the original offer. By going with this approach, women position themselves as connected to a group and not just out for themselves; in effect, they are negotiating for all women. Another approach is to substitute “ We” instead of “ I” . A women’ s request may be better received if she asserts, “ We had a great year,” as opposed to, “ I had a great year.”10

The most well-perceived tactic a woman can do in negotiating is to provide a legitimate explanation for the negotiation.11 One way of doing this is to suggest that someone more senior encouraged the negotiation (“ My manager suggested I talk with you about my compensation” ) or to cite industry standard (“ My understanding is that jobs that involve this level of responsibility are compensated in this range” ).

Finally, besides the foregoing, women have one additional thing at their disposal; women have the power of “ nice.” For example, men are “ allowed” to be focused on their own achievements, and in doing so they can be “ cut throat” without being perceived as “ not a nice person,” whereas loyalty is expected from women. I once had an attorney tell me some not-so-nice-things about his female adversary. When I asked him why, he explained a few reasons why he didn’t like her, but, to me, I thought she was just doing her job and working hard for her client.

However, being nice is not enough in negotiation. Nice, on its own, sends a message that the woman is willing to sacrifice pay to be liked by others. This is why women need to combine the power of “nice” with insistence, a style that Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, calls “ relentlessly pleasant.” 12 This method requires “ smiling frequently, expressing appreciation and concern, invoking common interests, emphasizing larger goals, and approaching the negotiation as solving a problem as opposed to taking a critical stance.” 13 An attorney I know shared that she used this tactic in the past. She went into an interview and, with a smile, said to the partners interviewing her, “ I have experience in litigation and thinking creatively to advocate for the client, and want to do that for this firm, but tell me, what is your biggest current problem and how can I solve it?” Later, they informed her that they have a problem with litigation case management and offered her a position that gave her room for growth and status with the firm. She is a prime example of being “ relentlessly pleasant.” By thinking personally, but acting communally, she informed the partners of her qualifications, asked what their biggest problem was, and offered to solve it.

Let’s face it, being an attorney is hard. After years of schooling, we finally get a degree and an opportunity at a job only to put in a ton of hours in a typically high-stress environment, but being a female attorney is harder. We do all of the above, and then for some reason, limit ourselves when it matters most, our compensation. Whether it is due to cultural norms, fear of rejection, trepidation of the unknown or a slew of other reasons, there is a disparity in how a woman must handle herself after receiving an offer, but before rejecting or accepting it. I understand that some firms may not have it in their budget, or may have five other candidates willing to work for less, but what is the harm in asking? You would not take the first settlement the adjuster offers, or would not read an opposing party’ s answer and say, “ oh I guess that is right, let’ s dismiss.” Why would you take the opening offer?

Just because we may think an offer is fair, does not mean we must accept it blindly. Mygoal for this article was to inform my peers of the facts and hope that I am helping to close the gap between gender bias in the “ viscous” legal field. Thus, using these tactics, women can do away with the fear of wondering, “ what if I countered,” so long as they stay focused . . . and smile.

This article originally appeared in the WBAI Fall 2016 Newsletter.


  1. As a caveat, this article is not a complete guide, and may not work for everyone. Just like our cases, everyone has skills and experience that are unique and negotiation must also be treated on a case-by-case basis per the given situation. This article is meant as an umbrella approach for how women can approach negotiation in the workplace, and any absolute statements made herein may not be the only solution.
  2. Catalyst, The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if they do, Doomed if You Don’t (July 2007), I,,%20doomed%20if%20you%20donE2%80%99t.pdf.
  3. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, Women Don ‘t Ask (New York: Bantam Books, 2007), 1-4; Linda Babcock et al., “Gender Differences in the Propensity to Initiate Negotiations,” in Social Psychology and Economics, ed. David De Cremer, Marcel Zeelenberg, and J. Keith Murnighan (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006), 239-59; and Fiona Greig, “Propensity to Negotiate and Career Advancement: Evidence from an Investment Bank That Women Are on a ‘Slow Elevator,'” Negotiation Journal 24, no. 4 (2008): 495-508.
  4. Id. at 1-2.
  5. Danielle is an assEmily T. Amanatullah and Michael W. Morris, “Negotiating Gender Roles: Gender Differences in Assertive Negotiating Are Mediated by Women’s Fear of Backlash and Attenuated When Negotiating on Behalf of Others,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98, no. 2 (2010): 256-67; and Bowles et al., “Constraints and Triggers,” 951-65. ociate attorney who defends asbestos litigation at Matushek Nilles LLC, which has no gender gap in its compensation system. Danielle enjoys being an avid member of WBAI and, during her free time, takes pleasure in running and trying new and exciting restaurants in the greater Chicago area.
  6. Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. First edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Pg. 46.
  7. Id.
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. Cecilia L. Ridgeway, “Status in Groups: The Importance of Motivation,” American Sociological Review 47, no. 1 (1982): 76-88.
  11. Bowles and Babcock, “How Can Women Escape the Compensation Negotiation Dilemma?” 1—17.
  12. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want (New York: Bantam Dell, 2008), 253.
  13. Id. at 251-66.

how-to-tactfully-negotiate-for-high-compensation Danielle is an associate attorney who defends asbestos litigation at Matushek Nilles LLC, which has no gender gap in its compensation system. Danielle enjoys being an avid member of WBAI and, during her free time, takes pleasure in running and trying new and exciting restaurants in the greater Chicago area.