How Important is a Job Title for my legal career?

24 October 2019

Associate, Corporate Counsel, Solicitor, Head of Legal, Special Counsel, Associate Director, Senior Associate, Counsel, Senior Counsel, Partner, General Counsel, Associate General Counsel, Legal Risk Solicitor, Director, Chief Counsel, Principal, In-house Lawyer, Managing Associate, Senior Lawyer, Legal Manager, Consultant, Legal Advisor, Legal Officer, Assistant Chief Counsel, Legal Head, Senior Legal Counsel, Legal Specialist, Legal Director, Deputy General Counsel, Senior Specialist Lawyer, Principal Legal Officer, Lead Counsel, ….and, of course,…..Lawyer.

It’s safe to say there’s no shortage of job titles for us lawyers to pop on our business cards – have a look at that list above…! And we’re sure we’ve missed some too! But a question immediately springs to mind….how important is a job title for YOUR legal career?

In the last few weeks we’ve come across this issue a couple of times – usually at the pointy end of discussions or when an offer is about to be made. Getting close to signing on the dotted line, but the process gets held up because one party isn’t happy with the proposed job title attached to the offer.

It’s an interesting situation, because in our experience as recruiters, in most instances (with of course the odd exception) it shouldn’t matter too much at all.

After salary, for some reason it seems that the job title is the next most important thing to a lot of lawyers. In the law firm environment, which is often viewed as a fairly rigid and hierarchical profession, it kind of makes sense. But when you boil it down, particularly for those considering options in-house, is there too much emphasis put on job title? We think so. And the main reason for that is, by and large, employers are more concerned about your actual legal experience, not your job title.

Job Titles in Practice

In private practice, everyone usually starts out their career as a “lawyer” or “solicitor” then progresses through to “associate”, then “senior associate”, then a pit-stop at “special counsel” and then perhaps Partner / Director / Principal (get my drift?). All depending on the firm.

Because so many firms have different job titles along the way it can actually be pretty confusing. Lots of firms skip out the “associate” and “special counsel” titles altogether, while some make it a prerequisite on the journey to partner. But for example, is an “associate” lawyer with 6 years PAE at a national firm more or less experienced than a “senior associate” with 4 years PAE at a smaller firm? Probably not…and again, I’d argue it comes down more to what experience you had in those years at that firm.

Problems can occasionally arise when a lawyer is on the cusp of making “senior associate” at their existing firm. When they decide to make a lateral move to another firm (or in-house), they sometimes feel they’re likely to delay that promotion because they didn’t achieve it where they originally were and as a result will stay on (through the pain perhaps!) for another year or so in order to do so. Is it really worth it? Flip it on its head and we’ve seen countless examples where lawyers are actually given the “senior associate” job title on their lateral move based solely on the matters and files they’ve worked on at their existing firm. Again, this gives strength to the argument that experience trumps what your business card says.

Another interesting observation we’ve made over the years relates to the “Partner” (or Principal, Director, etc…) job title. What we’ve noticed is that perhaps some firms hold on to that title too much and aren’t prepared to “share” it with other up and coming lawyers in the firm. We’re not suggesting that they be offered equity, but in terms of business development, it carries a lot more weight than titles such as “special counsel”. Indeed, some firms have had great success over the last few years in Brisbane by using the “Partner” job title as an investment – encouraging otherwise stifled senior associates or special counsel to grow and develop good practices of their own. Why more firms don’t do it I’m not sure.

Job Titles in In-house

This is where we’ve seen too many lawyers fret about their job title, rather than focus on the responsibilities offered in a potential new opportunity. And it’s here we’d argue that job titles really aren’t that important.

Last week we had a candidate enquire about a role for which he was perfectly suited. His experience was bang on, the salary was more than he was looking for, the role had greater responsibilities than his existing job, it was in a sector he was really interested in and there was scope to build out a legal team under him. When he asked if the employer could change the job title to something admittedly more grandiose than the proposed “Senior Legal Counsel” (in this case “Deputy General Counsel”), we asked our client who promptly returned serve by saying “no”. Result? Candidate walked away from the process and the client lost a great potential employee. Neither party was prepared to budge. I’d argue the client was probably right in the circumstances, but such a shame – all because of a job title.

At the end of the day, we understand the need for job titles, but we also think there is too much emphasis placed on them by job seekers. Often candidates will let their emotions get the better of them and walk away from a good opportunity rather than focus on what experience they will get in a new role. And this is particularly so when from what we’ve seen in all our years recruiting lawyers, an employer will be more interested in paying top dollar for your experience – not simply the job title you’ve had.

We hope you find this a useful point of reference in your career planning, but should you wish to have a confidential discussion about how we can help, please contact us.

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