Several years ago, I was brokering salary negotiations for an in-house position. The general counsel was excited about the candidate, the candidate was very interested in the company and there was good chemistry between the two.
The general counsel made an offer that was near the top of the range that was originally communicated to the candidate. Afterwards, there was some back and forth negotiation; but in the end, the GC was unwilling to budge from the top of the range he originally stated; and the candidate was unwilling to go any lower than $10,000 above the top of the range.
It was unfortunate that the candidate and the GC were unable to come to terms during the attorney compensation negotiations after investing so much time in the process. The candidate had the skills, experience and credentials to warrant the salary he was seeking. Given the other salaries in the law department, however, there was no way the GC could meet those demands.
While in-house attorney salaries are more negotiable than salaries at firms with a lock-step compensation plan, there are real limits to what in-house attorney pay can be negotiated. When interviewing for an in-house position, many associates do not realize these limitations, particularly associates at large firms where salaries increased 40% this year.
In the Boston area, in-house jobs have traditionally paid less than jobs at major firms and this remains the case. Despite some salary inflation which has spread to in-house jobs, most of the lawyers leaving large firms for corporate positions can expect to earn a base salary ranging from the low- to mid-100s.
There are contract counsel who may be earning somewhat less (even as low as $50,000) and some general counsel who have a base salary that exceeds $200,000; but for the most part, in the Boston area, in-house salaries fall in a bell curve between $75,000 and $200,000.
For most associates coming out of large firms, this means that going in-house will involve taking a big pay cut. But just how much of a pay cut depends on a variety of factors. What follows is an attempt to give you some guidance in evaluating what salary an employer might be willing to pay an in-house lawyer.