When I took driver’s ed in the 1970’s, our teacher introduced us to Mr. Smith’s Rules of Driving. It was a quaint film done in the 1950’s and had the feel of Father Knows Best (i.e. it was clearly lacking the whiz bang production qualities that a younger generation would expect.) But to this day, I still remember those rules (at least some of them–1. Keep those eyes moving 2. Keep the big picture, and my personal favorite, 3. leave yourself an out.)

As I think about the latest salary wars that are raging in New York (and likely to catch fire in other major legal markets) I suddenly realized that those driver’s education rules have direct relevance to the associates who are receiving (or not receiving) these pay hikes.

Salary is obviously a very important reason we all work. But it is important to “Keep the big picture” when thinking about salary. Sure it is nice to have another $15,000 in your pocket after working hard. But keep in mind that depending on your tax bracket, $15,000 is probably less than $10,000 after taxes. More importantly, how much difference will this $10,000 make in your life in 5 years (even if you earn this additional sum for 3-5 more years?)

IMHO, it is more important that you are laying a good foundation for your future success and career satisfaction. If you like your current firm and think you have a shot at partnership (or at least believe that you are developing the skills you need for success) , does it make sense to make a lateral move just to increase your income in the short run?

Of course no one wants to get paid less for equal work so undoubtedly, the wave that began in New York will continue to spread around the country. But if you remain at a firm that elects not to follow suit, consider whether making a lateral move now will do anything for you in the long run. I wrote about this 6 years ago when Testa Hurwitz (which dissolved a couple of years ago) started driving up salaries in Boston.

If your only goal in working for a top firm is to pay off debt, then by all means, “Keep those eyes moving.” But just remember that the good times that are driving this salary war will not last forever. We only need to look back to the earlier part of this decade to know that building good relationships with partners in your firm is the best way to “Leave yourself an out” when work slows down.

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