Many of you probably read the title of this post, rolled your eyes into the back of your head and thought "wow, this woman is a real genius. Who woulda thought cost of living mattered?"
Yes, I get it. Everything thinks about cost of living when they contemplate a geographic move, but apparently not everyone believes that it will apply to them or thinks that each specific legal market differs in terms of compensation. For example, I recently worked with a delightful corporate associate who wanted to move from the East Coast to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He had about two years of solid, sophisticated corporate experience from a firm that paid him a base salary of $170K a year. When we began the search for a new job in Milwaukee, I explained to him that firms pay much less there than they do in Washington, D.C., partly because of the difference in cost of living, but also because the market simply supports lower salaries. I even went so far as to say that the major firms in the area start their first year associates at $110K to $115K. My candidate responded to this by saying that he understood this and was prepared for a significant decrease in compensation. However, when an offered rolled in at $119K, this candidate was less than impressed.
Let's just say that I was confused, to say the least. After all, I had warned him of the market and the cost of living change, and he claimed to be prepared. When I asked him for an explanation, he said that he had gone to a website that calculates the difference in cost of living between specific cities, and according to that calculator, my candidate’s $170K salary on the East Coast should translate to $125K or more in Milwaukee.
Now, I am a big proponent of due diligence, and I have no problem with the various cost of living calculators out there on the internet (although none of the websites that I have visited provide even remotely similar calculations to one another), but a generic cost of living calculator is not going to take into account the specific legal market and what types of salaries it supports.
My candidate was right-- according to a number of cost of living calculators in the internet, someone making $170K in Washington, D.C. should make around $125K in Milwaukee. But for the most part, Milwaukee law firms do not care what the equivalent salaries are in various cities. They care about their competition in the market and what the other firms are paying their attorneys. For whatever reason, the large firms in Milwaukee generally pay a little less than their equivalents in Washington, D.C., and it is a candidate's job to understand this before undertaking a job search.
Frustrating as it might be, a law firm is not going to pay an associate more than it pays everyone else because s/he is coming from a market that pays more, even after adjusting for cost of living, so if you want to move to a city in which this is the case, you must be prepared. If not, you are bound to be disappointed at whatever offer(s) you receive.
I bet that most of you reading this think you know how things turned out for my candidate in Washington, D.C. Sadly, most of you are wrong. Even after I explained the differences in the legal markets, my candidate still felt under-compensated at $119K, and he ultimately turned down the offer, admitting that Milwaukee might not be the best place for him after all. And you know what? I think he is right.
Make no mistake, I do not fault this candidate for turning the offer down based on a salary that was $6K less than he thought he deserved, and it is not my place to judge him for doing so. In fact, I give him a lot of credit for recognizing that he would be unhappy at a lower salary, even if everything else about the job and firm was perfect for him. Having said that, I can guarantee that I am not going to allow this to happen in the future, even if it requires me to drill into my candidates’ heads that cost of living is not the only thing to consider when moving geographic locations. Each market is different and pays its associates what the market will support, and every candidate that contemplates a move needs to know this from the start.