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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

February 10, 2016
Question

I’m a GC and have been asked to assume the CFO role as well. Should I push to have “CFO” in my title? Will it make me a more competitive candidate for my next GC job?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

Lawyers care about titles. The more important they sound…the better. So when GCs are tapped to lead a second function within a company, they typically want their titles to reflect this corporate honor.

In addition to the CFO role, GCs can take on other non-legal company functions including COO, Head of HR and Head of Business Development. This duality is not a common occurrence, but it’s not an anomaly either. Sometimes these assignments are permanent…sometimes they are temporary. So when confronted with either situation, should a GC push to enhance his/her title? If so, what kind of effect will it have? Will it give the GC a competitive advantage and greater perceived value in the market?

There’s no doubt that the skills and experience you will develop in your new corporate role will be valuable. But tagging on the business title to your existing legal title will not give you much, if any competitive advantage in the GC market. And can potentially serve as a detriment. How?

  • Employers may believe that you have no interest in a pure legal role and you will want diverse legal and non-legal responsibilities. So their pure legal GC opportunity won’t be a fit with what they believe you are seeking.
  • Employers may think that your goal is to transition into a business role. So as an employee you would either be a flight risk…or would push for an internal transition once you joined the company.
  • Non-legal company execs currently performing your second function with a future employer (VP of HR, CFO etc.) may feel threatened that you would not stick to your legal knitting and would interfere with their function. Making it more challenging to receive their support.
  • These same execs may also worry that you would jockey for their job.
  • Employers may believe that you would get bored in a pure GC position.
  • Employers/HR execs may assume that you are too expensive for their position.

So what are the alternatives?

Effective alternatives include noting the business title as “Acting” i.e. “Vice President, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary and Acting CFO”. This communicates to an employer that this may not be part of your permanent role – or a desire to abandon the GC spot. Another option is to leave the business function out of the title altogether, but include the responsibility in the first line of your resume/LinkedIn profile/Bio etc. This way, you mitigate the assumptions above, but still highlight your added leadership role and market your business skills. Finally, you can push for an “official” title to be used internally, and get sign off to use your narrower legal title in parts of the outside world.

While potential downsides exist when combining a legal and business title, there are circumstances where the dual headline can makes sense: (1) You love the diverse experience and responsibility and want to maintain it in your next job; (2) The new executive title is an important executive designation internally; (3) Out of principle, you believe your title should accurately reflect your professional responsibilities; and (4) It’s an achievement you’ve earned and the enhanced title is important to you personally.

Your new promotion as CFO is a wonderful achievement and recognition from your executive colleagues. And will enhance your experience as well as your perspective as a lawyer. But before you pound the table for a title change, consider the pros and cons of a hybrid designation and determine whether you’ll receive the professional satisfaction and enhanced marketability you seek.

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