What Is Your Worth?

By Cynthia Morgan-Reed

On April 2, Equal Pay Day was commemorated across the country. This day is marked to illustrate the significant gap between women’s and men’s wages. For many women, suffering from gender pay discrepancy is a regular occurrence. For most of my career as an attorney, I was one of those women. While it’s encouraging there is an “official” day dedicated to bringing awareness to the gap, more must be done to remedy the situation than simply raising awareness. We must all self-advocate for our worth and take action.

The concept of self-advocacy is a no-brainer. But it’s easier said than done. Experience, and the stories of my colleagues, tell me that the majority of us don’t take action until we are really, really angry. That was certainly my situation. But you don’t have to be mad before you decide to do something. Self-advocacy can occur at any time and, the sooner you take your career in your own hands the better.

For many years, I worked for prestigious local law firms in San Diego, putting in the time and hours until I became a partner. When my first child was four months old however, I was forced to make a choice and left the law firm world to start my solo land use attorney practice.

In addition to being discriminated against for having a child, I also knew I was underpaid. I approached my firm for a moderate raise only to receive half of what I requested. When I asked why, I was told I was already paid too much. Within six months of starting my solo practice, I made more than my yearly salary for the previous year. And I worked substantially less billable hours.

Fast forward two years later and as a solo I made just over $484,000. If I was working in a traditional law firm – where an attorney takes home one-third to half of what they collect I would have been paid only $161,333 to $242,000.

But the satisfaction of making more money wasn’t enough. My worth is not based on how much money I make. It is based on how much I can change the traditional legal paradigm. The traditional law firm model thwarts the advancement of women, minorities, and men who want to live a meaningful life and practice law.

So I launched Vanst in 2018: a virtual law firm that provides all the bells and whistles of a traditional firm but none of the stuff we all hate: office politics, discrimination, and lack of control and transparency. At Vanst all attorneys are partners with their own book of business. They set their own rates and decide when and how many hours they work each month. Attorneys work from home, or lease space, with no centralized office to drive high overhead costs.

My earnings have continued to increase. In 2018, I made $597,000 in legal fee income; the most I have ever made. I disclose my income not to brag. But to give others hope. When I disclosed my income in 2017, a lot of people reached out to me. They told me I was brave, and my disclosure motivated them to look at their salary and question if they were being paid what they are worth. That excited me because it supports why I think sharing our incomes is so important: to shed light on the salary disparities that exist. And encourage attorneys to question and take action to rectify their discontent.

There are several reasons why my income increased since I started Vanst. I now refer work to other Vanst attorneys and receive 20% of what that attorney collects under our compensation formula. As a solo I had to refer more work out with little monetary benefit. Also, because I am in a firm, I no longer need to do the many different non-legal tasks of a solo like accounting and marketing. I focus more on my time on work and less time doing administrative tasks.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I increased my hourly rate to match my true worth. This is something I was emboldened to do because Vanst provides better resources and amenities than my solo practice. Cloud based software, cybersecurity, and a client management system allows me to be a better attorney and practice smarter and more efficiently.

My 2018 income is more than what I would have earned in a traditional law firm setting. At Vanst, attorneys earn at least 70% of what they collect. And I am practicing law in an environment that allows attorneys to not only practice where they want and when the want but also transparently. Our compensation formulas are easy to understand and applicable to all. We also share what all attorneys earn.

Additionally, not only has knowing my worth helped me personally, but it’s also beneficial to my clients. They are getting an even better attorney and my work is stronger as a result of having a better understanding of and earning my own self worth.

My story is not unique. And the amount of money I am making isn’t either. Or is it? If you found you were comparing your income to mine and felt dissatisfied, angry, or frustrated, recognize that emotion and validate it by doing something about it. Whether you are a woman who probably isn’t making as much as the males in your firm, or a small firm or solo attorney working harder than you need to for less reward, ask yourself what you are going to DO ABOUT IT. You could:

  • Ask for that raise. And if you don’t get it, leave the job.
  • Find another firm that fits you and will welcome your worth and talent by compensating you appropriately.
  • Start a solo practice where you are in charge of your practice and income.
  • Join Vanst – a firm that allows attorneys to earn their worth and control their future.

Your worth is not what someone is willing to pay you. Your worth is how you value yourself. Equal Pay Day is a good reminder that we should not settle for less. You are worth it.

Cynthia Morgan-Reed is the CEO of Vanst Law, LLP., a modern law firm that is changing the culture one attorney at a time. If you are interested in joining Vanst, complete the New Partner Candidate Questionnaire.