Knowing your worth as a consultant: you are priceless, but your time is not

Whether consulting full-time by choice, as a part-time extra, or because you are waiting for a different job to come along, knowing how to negotiate a good consulting fee can mean the difference between working for a pittance or becoming sustainably self-employed. Orly Stern shares some important tips about negotiating fees, as an international legal consultant with over 10 years of experience. 

One of the toughest parts of being an international legal consultant is negotiating fees. When you apply for a consultancy, a client will ask your proposed daily rate. Having consulted for a number of years, I am often asked by others how they should pitch their fees. Here are a few tips to consider: 

Know your valueIt takes a long time to become an international legal consultant. If I think about my path – I did a law degree, an LL.M, a PhD, and articles of clerkship to be admitted to my national bar. That alone was over 12 years out of the job market, skilling up. I feel it’s important that that be reflected in my earnings.  

Manage your expectations. As a legal consultant, your fees will be nowhere near what they would be as a lawyer billing hourly rates for a firm. Even top consultants do not make ‘lawyer’ money, so manage your expectations. If you work in the public interest space, it’s a wholly different fee range. 

Consider the competition. Consultancies are competitive, and it’s important to be reasonable in your ask, or you’re likely to lose the job. Conversely, if you agree to work for less, people will always pay you less. You have to find the right line. When pitching, enquire with other consultants about what rates they work for. Locate yourself in what is normal in that particular field and space.

Fee band. I have a ‘band’ of rates that I work between, which varies by about 200 USD a day. This means my top paying clients pay me around 200 dollars a day more than my lower paying ones. Various factors affect whether I charge an amount at top or bottom of my band. 

 Factors include: 

  • The location: Whether you need to travel, and if so, how insecure and uncomfortable the location is (deep field in a conflict zone charges a higher rate than home-based work);

  • What the organisation can afford: A small local NGO simply cannot afford the same rates as a major bilateral donor; 

  • How long the job is: The daily rates you charge on a 6-month full-time consultancy, will be lower than on a 3-day job.

  • Qualifications: You can charge more if you have a PhD than a Masters. You can charge more with a Masters than an undergrad. 

  • Is this your core specialisation? If this work is squarely within your core area of specialisation (on a topic where you are the expert), you can charge higher. If an area is newer to you, consider charging less.

  • Country experience. If you are a specialist on the country in which the consultancy is based, you can charge more. If you have never worked there, but are dying to get experience in that region, go lower.

  • How badly you want the job. It’s not all about the money. If I really want a job, because it sounds wonderful or adds to my portfolio or skills in some valuable way, I’ll make myself more competitive by working at lower rates. 

Lowballing. Keep in mind however, that if you work for super low rates, to always get the job, you are doing us all a disservice in the long term. Lowballing drives industry fees down, and ultimately stops consultancy being a viable profession for those who do it full time. Remember, while that many dollars a day might sound great for someone taking on the odd part-time consultancy, full-time consultants get no leave pay, sick pay, holidays, safety net, etc. Charge ethically and professionally.

Haggling. Once you have provided a fee, an organisation might revert, saying they can’t afford what you have asked for, enquiring if you can go lower. Expect this, and I’d say, factor this into your initial ask. So, for example, if you know you will not go lower than $550 per day, perhaps ask for $600, to allow room for negotiation. But don’t go too high at first, or you risk losing them before the word go.

You get used to this – although I have to admit, 10 years in, I still hate the quoting game. Remember, know your value, yet be reasonable, and have solid evidence-based expectations. Good luck!

Dr. Orly Stern is a researcher, consultant, and international lawyer, focusing on armed conflict, gender, security and law. Orly has worked and researched in countries including Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Central African Republic. She has consulted for various international organisations, research institutions and NGOs, and has published extensively in her field. She holds a Ph.D. in law from the London School of Economics, a Masters in human rights law from Harvard University, and currently teaches at the University of Cape Town. @orlystern

Sareta Ashraph