Should I take a pay cut this early in my career?
January 9, 2014 10:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm not happy at my job, but it pays fairly well for an entry level legal position. I've been offered another job that pays significantly less. I feel that I've already negotiated the salary as much as possible. What's my best move?

I've been working as a paralegal at a civil law firm for a little less than a year. My starting salary was slightly higher than the market rate for someone with my level of experience.

The problem is, it's a toxic work environment. We have unreasonable quotas to meet and managers who clearly have very little regard for their employees. I have close relationships with the attorneys that I work for (and whom have written me excellent recommendations), but that's just about the only good thing about it.

Ultimately, I want to focus my career on criminal law. I never felt particularly drawn to civil law, but this job came to me at the right time, and I've excelled.

I've been offered a government job as a criminal case paralegal, but the salary is about $8,000/year less than I currently make. I've already negotiated the salary, and have been told that this is the absolute highest they can go.

I think that the new job will be more interesting, more challenging, and ultimately more beneficial for my career. At the same time, I'm very hesitant to move "backwards" while I'm still trying to establish my adult life. (I'm in my early 20's, no kids, and don't own a home. However, I'd like to own a home in the next five years.) Also, I really enjoy not overly worrying about money, and being able to take a few friends out for a drink without constantly refreshing my mental bank account.

I'd appreciate insight and experience into when taking a pay cut has been worth it, and when it was better to stick it out with a less than ideal job. Also, are there other tactics that I'm overlooking? Can I push for more benefits (i.e. a paid bus pass?) in a government position?
posted by frizzle to Work & Money (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It would be worth sharing any comparison of benefits and training. A toxic environment is never good, but $8k a year is a big jump when you are not highly paid.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:49 PM on January 9, 2014

There's a reason why so many people in the legal profession are eager to take government jobs. It's because while the pay sucks, the quality of life is so much better. For perspective's sake, $8,000 is not that a big difference as things go in these situations, by the way... I have friends who are criminal attorneys for the state who could make literally twice as much money if they went to private firms, but they're not interested.

Here's why. And please remember I am speaking in generalities... these are the rules, but there are always exceptions.

The downside to government work, in addition to crappier pay, is that there usually is not as much potential for raises or upward mobility. It's harder to get promoted, and an annual raise is out of the ordinary in most government jobs (especially state jobs).

But the upside of government work is that you will work fewer hours, you will have better benefits, you will have a smaller case load, you will actually have time for a family, you will have more reasonable expectations from your attorneys and your directors, you'll get more time off each year... et cetera, et cetera.

In a private firm, you'll deal with asshole workaholic sociopath partners and associates who are ready to run over anyone who gets in their way, especially you, a paralegal. In government law, your greatest annoyance will instead be lazy baby boomer attorneys who treat work like a social club, and who really ought to just retire already. The latter is horribly annoying, to be sure... but the former is worse, in my book.

You probably won't really be able to negotiate any other benefits or salary improvements. Benefit packages are fairly well set in stone (if they do paid bus passes, everyone gets them), and there's not a lot of freedom for a hiring manager to negotiate. If they're telling you "this is the most we can pay you," they probably aren't lying, especially if it's for a paralegal job. Still, you can try one last common negotiating tactic attorneys and paralegals use, which is to tell the government hiring official, "I know I'm not going to be getting regular raises or pay grade increase opportunities as often as I would in the private sector. Can you do anything else to increase my pay now up front?" It's not an unfair question to ask them, they get it all the time... but they may still tell you no.

One more thing to know. The rule of thumb is that the lower the level of government, the better your opportunities are for pay increases and promotions over time. City attorneys and paralegals have plum jobs as they deal with the simplest cases, get paid the most, and have the easiest opportunities for upward mobility. County jobs aren't too bad. State jobs are the bottom of the barrel as you've got the largest case loads, the toughest cases, and usually you're at the whim of an idiotic and cheap state legislature that won't fund its attorney general departments appropriately (especially if you live in a red state).

Federal jobs are the exception to the rule as there are more transfer opportunities, and once you get into federal work, you've got a huge leg up if you ever apply for a new federal job elsewhere.

Anyway, I digress. When you put it all together, if I were you, I would take this new job. Go with your gut.

It fits your future career aspirations, it'll give you better quality of life, and it may open some new doors for work in other related fields once you make some connections. It will be less pay, and you're going to have to deal with different kinds of annoyances in the workplace, but I think you'll find that you're more interested in your work and happier with the quality of life you develop.

And if there is ever a time to take a large pay cut to pursue new interests and a better direction, it's now, at the beginning of your career, when you are young, and you're able to adapt and roll with the punches very easily... not fifteen years from now, when you have much more invested in your career and your life. Take that from me, who is about 10 years older than you, and who would very much like to change his career... but it's just not practical at all at this point.

Go for it.
posted by Old Man McKay at 11:07 PM on January 9, 2014 [21 favorites]

I second that taking a big pay cut is probably best done now at your current age and lack of financial obligations to deal with. But do you live somewhere expensive? Is it going to be a major hardship for you to be $8000 poorer a year, or would that be worth it to get out of the toxic environment? Or can you tolerate that environment for the money?

Overall I think I'd lean towards taking the government job, but I don't know how your finances and living arrangements are going currently, or if you even have the spare time to spend that extra cash.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:13 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

At your age, experience trumps remuneration. Focus on building the best possible experience.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:17 PM on January 9, 2014

There will always be tradeoffs.

Trade 8k for a better work experience? If you are making 30k, no. If 60? Maybe or yes.

The new job may suck, too, in ways you cannot anticipate. One perma-goverment asshole and you are exactly where you are now, but 8k poorer. Even odds you will find one in your chain of command. ( General rules: assholes usually point down. incompetence is no barrier to longevity in most jobs. if a major asshole is eliminated, a minor one grows to take its place. folks are sometimes promoted to get rid of them. ) (Not so general rules: work usually pays the least possible to retain functionary employees. government jobs are no more secure these days than private sector jobs. )

You have already run into one huge reality... your potential new employers are powerless to meet your needs. They can't even spend another 8k without an act of congress. A good negotiating point is to tell them that and see how well they solve real-world problems. If they can come up with another 8k, jump ship. If not, stay put.

I'm all for change. I have done it a bunch in my engineering career. More than once, I found that the greener grass was painted that way and I could only tell up close. In my field and in my time, changing jobs was never hard.

Is it possible you can study your criminal topics and wait for a job in your desired area that CAN pay another 8k? It is worth a year or two of holding your nose and doing a great job under harder circumstances to learn how to work in such settings? Will you be less valuable to the world with two more years of civil work experience?

If you ditch this job, -8k in 5 years will be -40k, minimum With careful investment, that +8k alone could be +60k in 5 years, pretty easily. A long way to a big down payment.

Good luck with your decision. Personally, I value work over money, but I have made the decision both ways with varying results. No easy answer for all circumstances.
posted by FauxScot at 12:14 AM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding FauxScott. There's a chance that the new job will suck too, and pay you less money. Choose door #3: find a third job that at least offers parity.
posted by chrchr at 12:45 AM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Personally, I think the time to have limited money is when you have limited responsibilities. And if the new job is in line with what you're actually interested in, then that will ultimately help your career. Extra money will not.
posted by heyjude at 1:11 AM on January 10, 2014

I think you should take the new job if you can possibly afford to. Toxic environments are simply not worth it. Besides, toxic environments train you into a demeanour that will continually attract other toxic people towards you so that after a while, you become convinced that that's just what people are like. Get out now.l

Also, toxic environments tend to bog you down and hamper your progress in various ways. I can see you getting stuck in your position and pay level so that before long, you're earning less than your market value and unable to move forward to increased pay or anything else.

I don't know anything about government jobs where you are, but you should believe other people's experience re quality of life and opportunity for advancement.
posted by tel3path at 2:18 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

You should definitely move. The only reason you've offered to stay is the $8k pay difference. That is nothing when set against the fact it is both the wrong career and environment for you (and is pretty small beer when considering your likely future earnings).

It's true you might not like your new job but you definitely don't like your current job. And if you don't like your new job, you've still gained valuable new experience.

On the other hand, if you stay, tough it out, get promoted, get a mortgage, get dependents then suddenly you might find yourself trapped a decade down the line. A couple of years ago I took a $20k cut to move jobs. That was tough then but I just couldn't afford to do it today. You've got plenty of time to build your career, making sure you use the flexibility you currently have.
posted by ninebelow at 2:37 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'd say go for it! Comparing my experience as a government paralegal and my friends' experience in the private sector, I'd say that I've gotten to do much more substantive and interesting work and my resume is more impressive, plus I get to work 9-5. Also, based on my understanding of government vs private salaries, if this job only pays $8k less, it sounds like you negotiated really well. (Of course, as someone said upthread, if your current job pays something like $30k and $8k is a really substantial difference, I would tread more cautiously.)

Do ask about the benefits; they could basically balance out the salary cut. I get really good benefits from my gov't job, which is unionized.

Feel free to memail me if you would find details about my specific experience helpful.
posted by mlle valentine at 4:55 AM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

(My job is in criminal law and my private-law friends were civil practice btw, if not clear above).
posted by mlle valentine at 5:05 AM on January 10, 2014

Know your risk. You could be unhappy at the other job and making less to boot.
posted by pravit at 5:12 AM on January 10, 2014

To my mind, the biggest reason to go with it is the hope for a healthier work environment. The current position you describe will take a huge toll on your sanity. Get out while you can.
posted by yclipse at 5:19 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it really depends on the specifics of the new job (what branch, what level of government, etc, in addition to factors like the "one perma-goverment asshole" theory, which is totally hilarious and true), but my government legal experience was both wonderful and fulfilling AND opened up many doors for me later. I did it right out of law school, when I was single and had few responsibilities, so the pay wasn't as big of a deal (and I even lived in a more expensive city than I do now, making literally half the money I do now).

So, I'd pretty much say go for it.
posted by Pax at 5:22 AM on January 10, 2014

If I were in your situation, I'd find a way to make the move work for me. The thing is, if you hate job #2, while you're making less money, you have a new piece of experience on your resume that will make finding job #3 that much easier.

Also, once you work in a government capacity, even at municipal or state levels, you are that much closer to getting on with the Federal Government, and that's worth doing.

Consider the entire compensation package. My parents both worked for California State, the salaries were kinda shitty, but how much are they loving their CalPers Pension? Along with Social Security AND my Dad's Federal Government Pension? We should all be so lucky.

There is a LOT to be said for not dreading your job. Working a normal business day, and walking away to enjoy your evenings and weekends is pretty sweet. You will also enjoy every holiday known to man!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:10 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you want to go to law school and be a lawyer? If so, definitely take the criminal paralegal job! Even if it is not a perfect work environment (and no work environment is perfect) it will be excellent experience for you, and very good for your law school application. It will also let you know if you really want to do criminal law. Sound like you have gotten everything you can about your present job: some experience, some money, and great recommendations. So go ahead and move on. Nothing substitutes for experience when it comes to lawyering. Good luck!
posted by yarly at 6:46 AM on January 10, 2014

Thank you very much for all the answers so far-- they've been very insightful. To provide a bit more detail:

-I currently make about 36k a year, this job is about 28k.
-I've been having some medical problems that make the health benefits offered at the new job (coverage at 95%) very appealing, but also make the idea of leaving a higher paying job (and therefore more savings) very daunting.
-I'm living in Portland, OR. I do believe that, with a little finagling, I can make the 28k work without too much hardship.
-I do plan to go to law school eventually, and would like to practice criminal law.

I'd appreciate any other feedback ya'll might have.
posted by frizzle at 7:42 AM on January 10, 2014

Besides, if you don't like the next job, it won't be the last job you'll ever have. You'll have to wait it out for a while, sure, but towards the end of a year you can look for another job if you want to. And if it's really unbearable you can look for another job sooner.
posted by tel3path at 7:43 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Never stay in a toxic system longer than you absolutely have to. I went into a sick/toxic system when I was 23, I'm still there now at nearly-27, and it's changed me in ways that I couldn't have imagined four years ago. I stuck it out because I "owed" my employer at least 3 years, and because I "owed" my resume the experience. It was not worth it to stick it out. Reference: I work in civil litigation at a small private law firm.

I just got hired at a different company in a completely different industry, and I have no confidence in my sense of what normal boundaries are with my will-be-new-boss, even though I'd worked at two healthy companies before coming into the bad one. I forget what a normal boss with normal expectations is like. FWIW, my new job is a 1-hour highway commute (each way)--more than double what I do now, and it's on a crappy, crappy road--and considering the gas money and the time commitment, I'm barely going to be earning more than I am now. But I actually get benefits (401K!!) and room for career advancement. Thus, it's a career move that comes with some temporary sacrifice (I hope to kill the commute in a year and a half); it's not an instant-gratification move that is going to pay off immediately. It's worth it to get into a better environment and hopefully a better career path.

Unless the pay cut is going to absolutely demolish your life, take the new job. Be sure to consider how much you really make now if you work long, long hours. (After all the hours I put in at my law firm, I earn less than $12.00. My boss doesn't get that.) Heed the advice about the perks of working for the government, especially at your age; it sounds like it's a real ticket to a solid career. There's no sense in hemming and hawing over, "Well, the new job could be just as toxic, so..." You don't know, and that kind of thinking keeps a lot of wonderful people in real crappy jobs with real crappy bosses. Lastly, criminal and civil law are very, very different, and the experience in criminal law will be invaluable to you. Maybe it's civil law that doesn't fit, or maybe it's all of law that doesn't fit. I've known plenty of legal assistants and paralegals, including myself, who came in saying "I want to go to law school!" and left saying "I would never go to law school!" Not saying that's you; I'm saying that you owe it to yourself to find out if criminal law is the fit you're looking for. Good luck!
posted by coast99 at 7:56 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've been having some medical problems that make the health benefits offered at the new job (coverage at 95%) very appealing, but also make the idea of leaving a higher paying job (and therefore more savings) very daunting.

Look at it this way: you'll definitely have better coverage at the new job (which may make the drop in income a little more of a wash) AND you're likely to have less stress (which can only help your medical problems). Also, consider the sick leave policy between the two jobs. It's possible that the new job might offer more sick time/personal time/comp time than your current job. Or, even if the sick leave policies are similar between the two, in practice it may be that your current job's toxic culture discourages taking sick time, even if you need it. That's not as likely to be the case at the new job.
posted by scody at 8:10 AM on January 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've been having some medical problems that make the health benefits offered at the new job (coverage at 95%) very appealing, but also make the idea of leaving a higher paying job (and therefore more savings) very daunting.

Oh man, you know how fast you can rack up 8K in medical bills? Literally overnight.

If I were in your position and I couldn't afford not to have the 8K, I'd take the lower-paying job and then try to get a once-a-week part time job. Completely serious.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:17 AM on January 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

frizzle, knowing that you plan to go to law school and work as an attorney in criminal law, I would encourage you to go for the new job even more. Getting some hands-on experience will help you to see whether you really enjoy criminal law, and if you do, you'll be more prepared for law school and for jobs afterward (your resume is going to look better than someone with a fresh JD who has no criminal law experience).

As far as the medical issues go, the likelihood will be that the new job will give you a lot more sick time, in addition to personal days/vacation. And, working in a less stressful environment might be a big help to your health as well.

Don't be afraid to ask the government job for a bit more info in order to confirm PTO/sick leave/vacation numbers. But the likelihood is that you'll probably have a better situation there.
posted by Old Man McKay at 10:07 AM on January 11, 2014

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