Negotiating Compensation and Avoiding the ‘Tiara Syndrome’

Jun 27, 2017, By Andrew Longstreth

While market forces are forcing major changes within Big Law, one feature has proven difficult to dislodge: the gender pay gap. Carol Frohlinger is intimately familiar with all the obstacles that stand in the way of closing the gap. She has advised thousands of women on how to negotiate more confidently and effectively, consulted with organizations and associations how to retain and promote talented women, and co-authored two books “Her Place at the Table” and “Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It.” Frohlinger spoke to us about what she’s seeing in the market and the common mistakes women make in negotiations.

How would you characterize the progress that the legal profession has made compensating women attorneys fairly?

I think that it is very clear from the gender gap in compensation that the profession has not made as much progress as one would have hoped by 2017.

I graduated from law school in 1983 and if you had told me then that we would still be thinking about these same kinds of issues, I would have said, “No000!” But here we are and I guess the stats are incontrovertible in terms of the gender gap, which is unexplained even if you think about the fact that traditionally women have tended to go towards certain practice areas that are not as highly compensated generally.

What is it about law firm equity compensation models that are particularly challenging for women?

As you know, every firm has its own individual way of calculating equity compensation, but generally speaking, the ability to bring in business is a huge factor and so that on its face looks very gender neutral.

Now, underneath that, there is what I would call systemic issues. So, for example, if bringing in business is a huge factor in the compensation decisions, what people don’t realize is that it is much more of a challenge for women to bring in business than it is for men.

Part of that is women may not be invited to pitch or they may not necessarily be part of the succession planning process. And in a lot of firms, the partner who is retiring basically has a lot of discretion in how the client book will be distributed after his retirement. And what do they do? They tend to pick the young whippersnapper that reminds them of themselves when they were young whippersnappers. It is only human nature, and it is not intentional.

What do you think about the recent lawsuits challenging gender pay disparity at law firms?

Generally speaking, my advice is that lawsuits are rarely the answer. My area of expertise is negotiation; I always feel like if you can settle it in a way that doesn’t cause headlines, the better. For the individual, it is a very long, arduous, emotional and rarely satisfying thing to do, and obviously firms don’t like it for the press and all of that.

Having said that, these lawsuits are calling attention to the problem. And so, I think when the headlines are splashed all over Above the Law or The Careerist or whatever, firms that are not being sued, yet, are saying, “Hmm maybe this is something we should pay a bit more attention to.”

What is the most common mistake women make in negotiating compensation?

I think that the mistake that some women, not all, make is to assume that life is fair. That if you do good work and you are a good corporate citizen or a good team player, all will be fine. I call it the tiara syndrome. So, what is that? You work hard, often skipping lunch, work weekends, deliver great results for your clients, and hope that the right people notice and place a tiara on your head.

The challenge is that nobody notices, and it is not because people are cruel; it’s because they are busy. So, you have to advocate for your own best interest in a way that is culturally compatible, because the other thing we know about is the backlash women face when they ask and they get slapped because it is not socially acceptable in the same way that it is for men.

So, I have a saying, “Hope is not a strategy.” You can hope but it’s not a strategy. Negotiation is a strategy.

You have a daughter. What do you tell her? How do we get beyond this? 

I say look at the performance evaluation process like tax planning. You don’t start it on December 31st. All throughout the year, you have to be making sure you’re negotiating for feedback on your work and your working style. You have to be planting seeds that you are ready for the next assignment. In other words, don’t wait for somebody to notice. Keep a journal so that when you sit there to write your self-evaluation at the end of the year, you have specifics of what you accomplished.

I love the tax plan analogy. What should women keep in mind when negotiating their compensation?

Make sure you understand what is valued. Be very aware and observant of what is important at the firm in terms of compensation. Don’t just keep your head down and do great work. Look up and see what is going on around you.

What kind of financial benchmarks should women be keeping in mind?

The best advice I could give the people is to read a book I co-authored, which is a guide to negotiating compensation.

It really is written for partners, but the principles are applicable to anybody. But basically, make sure that you understand key parameters—the size of your firm, where you’re based, your practice area.  What is the range from the low end to the high end for similarly situated people? Then you can then start to build your case for why you belong at the high end. This is an objective way of approaching a highly emotional subject.

I have seen you talk about how hiring and keeping women is a win-win for firms. How do you make the business case? 

Very few dispute the statistics that show businesses operate better when there is more diversity of thought. We can now focus the fact that it matters to clients. The power of the purse is a very, very powerful thing. And corollary to that is that more and more women are in decision-making roles on the client side, and so you really need to have a team that is reflective of the client.