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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

September 5, 2017
Question

Will an inflated title hurt my marketability in the job market?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

Question: I’m a young in house lawyer with a General Counsel title. Will this title hurt me when I look for another mid-level job?

There are many roads that can lead to the rank and title of General Counsel. Some roads are loooong and winding. Some are straight up a steep hill. Some have a series of potholes and roadblocks…And others…are an easy stroll up the block.

While it is uncommon for a young, more inexperienced lawyer to achieve the designation and status of General Counsel (GC) in an organization, it does occur (primarily in private/emerging growth organizations). And while there are virtues to such a meteoric rise, there can also be challenges.

The reality is that GC titles do not guarantee like titles…or roles for the rest of a career. And for the junior GC, this is almost always the case. So when it’s time to move to greener pastures, these attorneys tend to keep their options open and consider interesting mid-level roles in interesting companies as part of their job strategy (a wise move).

But when testing the market, will the inflated title hurt such a candidate’s marketability?

Generally speaking, the title won’t create insurmountable challenges, but you may encounter some. The most likely issues may arise when applying for (1) non GC roles in private companies with smaller legal departments; and (2) in some smaller public companies where the legal team is smaller as well. So what are the specific concerns might employers have? Below is the list:

  • You are ambitious and will not be satisfied in a lower level non-GC role for long.
  • You will be a threat to the GC and will pursue for his/her job.
  • You will leave as soon as another GC role comes your way.
  • You are too expensive.
  • You won’t take direction well from a boss in Legal.
  • The role for which you are interviewing will be too narrow for your skill set or preferences.

Knowing the potential issues that could spike your candidacy will allow you to plan ahead to mitigate misperceptions, misunderstandings and missed opportunities. So where to start? The first place to start is with your resume. By providing relevant and important information right on the page, you will answer questions that may arise when an employer, recruiter or colleague reviews your CV. Below are a few tips:

Education First.

Do you remember that old resume “rule” that the education section always goes at the bottom of your resume if you are not a new grad? Rubbish! An employer will have her/his impression about You as a candidate within the first ¾ of the first page. So whatever message you are prioritizing about You should be communicated first. In your situation, you want to enhance your marketability for mid-level roles, so employers should know right up front, that you are a mid-level lawyer. How are they going to know that? By putting your education…and your grad years first. The first and immediate micro-impression will be “I see Sally earned her JD in 2009, she is the appropriate seniority level for my Senior Corporate Counsel role.” Bingo.

Include Leveling.

Despite the GC title, chances are that you are leveled lower than a prototypical GC. It is most common in these situations that very young GCs are at the Director level. If this is the case for you – or if your position is something different than a VP, include this next to your title. This will communicate to the resume reader that while your title is GC, you’re actually leveled lower, which will mitigate many of the potential issues above. Here is an example in resume format:

__________________________________________________

SALLY ROBERTS
555 West Main Street
sally@gmail.com

LEGAL EXPERIENCE

Company XYZ, San Francisco, CA                                       2015 – Present
General Counsel (Director level)

__________________________________________________

Include Reporting Structure.

If you do not report to the CEO, be sure to include this information in the narrative under your title. Doing so informs the reader and will address potential reporting structure concerns.

Detail Responsibilities.

For the employer who believes that GCs are primarily managers and aren’t responsible for the blocking and tackling of the company’s legal matters, you’ll have the opportunity to dispel that impression by detailing your practice in the current employment description. So do just that. Also keep in mind, if there are opportunities you are considering in your job search with specific substantive requirements (i.e. commercial counsel; product counsel) be sure to detail your experience that is relevant to these types of roles.

Now that your resume is spit polished and ready to go, the next area to prepare for is the interview. If you’ve received an offer to interview, you must be ready to address any potential concerns that have been raised by virtue of your title. So review the objections above and start preparing now. Below is an example:

Employer: You are currently a GC, why would you want to take a step backwards? Won’t you get bored? 

Candidate: While my current title is General Counsel, my role operates at the Director level. Also, I’m at a start up where the company is small and everyone is in the weeds wearing many hats. As the only lawyer, I’m an individual contributor and utility player and am responsible for drafting and negotiating virtually all legal matters. I don’t manage a team, but I am tasked with being self sufficient and independent. I understand your potential concern, but my title is overstated as measured against the level at which I’m operating in the organization. This opportunity is appealing to me because the scale of Company XYZ provides a broader set of responsibilities with cutting edge legal issues. I also am attracted to a larger legal department with more senior lawyers who can serve as mentors. So I view this position as most definitely a step forward.

Reaching peak status so early in one’s career is something to be proud of. However, the accomplishment can create challenges when seeking non GC level opportunities in the today’s legal market. Concerns will arise with some employers…but not all. And the severity of those concerns will vary.

At the end of the day, the inflated title won’t be a career killer. But if you want to maximize your options, you’ll need to be prepared to address any objections that may come your way. So take inventory, hone your narratives and start laying the foundation to reach the top of your next mountain.

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