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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

June 19, 2017

My current title is Group General Counsel. I want to switch jobs and am open to a more junior title/role at a larger company. How do I convince an employer that I’m ok with this?

Julie Q. Brush

Titles can be tricky things. Sometimes they mean a lot and other times they mean close to nothing. So accurately interpreting the actual role and responsibilities tethered to a particular title can be challenging for a potential employer. Because of this, employers can make incorrect assumptions about the lawyer performing the role. This can prove troublesome for a candidate because when it comes to a job search, titles can play a key role in influencing interviews, compensation, job leveling and the overall viability of a candidacy.

You are currently holding the title of Group General Counsel in your organization, which indicates…by its title…that you are one of the top lawyers in a leadership position with a good deal of responsibility. But for your next position, you are willing to take a lower level position in a larger company. So what’s the best way to convince an employer of this?

The first step in this process is to be honest with yourself. You say you will take a “lower level” position, but how much lower are you willing to go? Do you know specifically what this means for you? What is the lowest title you’ll accept? What about compensation? Are you willing to take a hit on comp? If so, how much of a hit? Then there’s the issue of reporting structure. You’re likely reporting to the GC or the CEO of one of the company subsidiaries now. How far removed from the top legal executive are you willing to be? Do you care about managing people? What if you don’t have meaningful interaction with the top execs – is that ok? Are you willing to come in in an individual contributor role? How do you feel about a role that’s more siloed?

Before you communicate your unequivocal willingness to join a company in a lower level position, you better assess whether it’s truly unequivocal. I’ve met scores of lawyers who are emphatic about their willingness to step down on the ladder, but in the end there are always caveats. And by the way, it’s totally fine to have caveats – and even better to be aware of exactly what they are. By knowing them, you can better manage your search process and make a better impression on employers and other professionals in the market. So dedicate the time to know thyself first.

The second step is to understand what employers might assume from your current title as they assess your resume. Why is this important? Because knowing all the potential objections can help guide you as you craft your convincing narrative. Below are the assumptions about your candidacy employers might make:

  • You only want a General Counsel title
  • You want to manage people
  • You aren’t willing or interested in rolling up your sleeves in an individual contributor role or with individual contributor responsibilities.
  • You make a lot of money
  • You’ll get bored in a “lower level” position
  • You’ll become malcontented in a lower level position and will become a management headache.
  • You’ll be a flight risk
  • You may say that you are ok with a lower level title, but in the end you won’t be and will reject an offer if it does not have an equivalent title and money.

So now that you know the mind of a hiring manager, you can better understand the potential concerns and challenges you’ll need to overcome – and create the most effective argument you can come game time.

The third step requires you create your argument to convince employers of your willingness to work at a lower level in their organization. Each narrative will be slightly different depending on the role for which you are applying. But all will address one or more of the objections above. Below are a few examples to serve as a guide:

Example #1

Employer: You’ve been operating at a high level as a GC and I don’t think this Director level role won’t be challenging enough for what you’re used to. Why are you interested in this position?

Candidate (You): “In my current company, I’m not the General Counsel, but am Group GC, where I serve as the point of contact for a few of the company’s subsidiaries. Despite the title, the majority of my responsibilities involve the day-to-day blocking and tackling of legal issues required to push business forward. This Director role is similar in scope, but would also allow me to broaden my skillset in a slightly different industry. The culture at XYZ Company is terrific and is what I’m seeking for a next employer so there is a good deal of alignment here. In addition, your organization is much larger than my current company so I don’t expect to join at my current level. It would only make sense to slot in at a lower level given the context. Finally, my compensation is within the range you are offering for this role – which indicates an alignment with my expertise and the Director level position in your department. I understand some of the potential concerns and appreciate the opportunity to address them. I hope the information I’ve provided is helpful. Is there anything else that might be of concern that I haven’t addressed?”

Example #2

Employer: I’m not sure this is the right fit. We won’t likely be able to meet your compensation expectations and I’m concerned you won’t be happy in this role.

Candidate (You): “My current compensation is close to your range, but my primary focus is on the role, the organization and the culture. So the delta is not a material factor. I’m currently at a smaller company and my near term goals are to gain experience and add value in a larger company like Company XYZ. The scale and size of the department are appealing to me and the level where this role sits in the department I view as a step forward for me. I’m really excited about this opportunity and see it as a next logical step in my career. I understand that it may appear that my current role is more advanced, but the reality is that it is not when compared to the size and scale of Company XYZ as well as what the role has to offer. “

As you embark on your job search, your current position and title may raise potential concerns for employers seeking to fill “lower level” roles. But if after a thorough self-assessment, you are truly willing to make such a transition, you will be able to make a convincing argument to preserve the viability of your candidacy if you follow my advice above. It won’t necessarily be effective in every situation, but all you need is one “yes” to change a career. Best of luck!

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