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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

February 2, 2016

How much experience is “too much” experience? I’m a 10th year, so is it worth applying for positions requiring 5-7 years of experience, or should I assume I’m overqualified?

Julie Q. Brush

It’s not always easy to tell whether a lawyer has too much experience for a particular position…specifically if the seniority gap isn’t that wide. If you have 10 years of experience and are considering legal employment positions asking for 5-7 years of seniority, you should not assume you are too experienced in every instance. And you should not be deterred from learning more about an opportunity in order to assess whether the role could be right for you or a step backwards.

So when can a candidate possess an acceptable amount of experience for a role despite being north of the seniority range? Below are some common scenarios:

  • If you started your legal career in a different substantive area and later retooled your practice, your years of relevant experience for the prospective role are likely more aligned with the employer’s seniority range as well as the responsibilities for the position.

Example: you spent four years as a law firm litigation associate and then transitioned in house as a commercial transactions lawyer. So of your 10 years of legal experience, four are as a litigator and six as a commercial lawyer. 

  • Your background is more diverse while the job opportunity calls for for more tailored expertise. In this instance, you won’t likely be overqualified for the position.

Example: you have 10 years of diverse experience (tech trans, commercial, M&A, corporate, privacy, product) and five of those years carry a heavier weight on privacy. In this scenario, you won’t likely be viewed as too senior if the role calls for a 5-7 year privacy lawyer.

  • The role allows you to broaden your background/advance your career. Maybe you get to manage people, maybe the role’s scope is international, maybe it’s a new industry – whatever the case, if the position will allow you to spread your wings, grow and advance, you’re not likely overqualified for it. The job description will provide a window into what to expect.
  • You are at a small, relatively unknown or less known employer and are considering a job opportunity at a big, well-branded company. Big, high profile companies often have an eclectic mix of attorney profiles in their ranks. So seeing a more senior lawyer at a lower level in these types of organizations isn’t terribly uncommon.
  • The compensation and title are acceptable. More senior candidates for an opportunity can often arrive to the process with a bigger title and higher compensation. This can create suspicion among employers as to why a lawyer in this position would take a “step down”. It also creates fear that such a candidate will be a flight risk. So candidates in this position are at a competitive disadvantage. But if you are truly ok with the comp and title…and have a good reason why, the position may not be out of reach. They key is convince the hiring manager of your contentment and mitigate his/her fears.
  • Moving from law firm to in house. Corporate employers view legal life inside a company as vastly different than a law firm. To them, lawyers coming straight out of a firm do not yet possess the understanding of what it’s like to function…and succeed in house. Consequently, employers will discount a law firm candidate’s years of experience because of this learning curve. They also know that law firm candidates are willing to be flexible on comp and title for the opportunity to transition in house. Given this mentality, employers tend to be slightly more flexible on seniority with this candidate profile (as long as compensation can work). But if the seniority gap is too wide, it will be a no-go.

Determining your over, under or just right qualifications for a job opportunity is more about assessing a variety of factors…as opposed to one in a given context. So while your technical number of years practicing law may be more than what an employer is seeking, you should not assume you are overqualified for the role. Instead, identify just how big the age gap is and analyze the role, compensation and title as well as how the opportunity can help you grow and advance. By doing this, you’ll see a clearer picture as to the fit. And if you decided to move forward, you’ll make a more effective case when the time comes.

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Lass Evans, VP, Deputy General Counsel, Fortune 500 Company

Great article Julie.

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