Special Counsel’s Guide to Handling Counteroffers

Sign-choicesAfter months of searching for and accepting a position that allows you to attain your goals, you can finally let your guard down and focus on the excitement of moving on to a more satisfying career. The hard part is over, right? Maybe not. Once you announce your resignation, be prepared for your emotions to run the gamut from the excitement of being offered and accepting a new position to the second-guessing that may accompany a lateral move.

In a market where the average attorney will change positions several times over the course of her career, it is not surprising that law firms and in-house legal departments strive to retain their legal talent. When a valued attorney announces her resignation, most law firms and in-house legal departments aren’t willing to watch their superstar walk out the door without a fight. Colleagues may act shocked and accuse you of being disloyal. They will ask questions like -“How can you do this to us after all we did for you?” They may make you feel as though the entire department will collapse once you leave. They may pump you full of terrible “facts” about the new firm or corporation you have decided to join in an attempt to persuade you to stay. Oftentimes a law firm or in-house legal department will ask what the new position is paying and will present the exiting attorney with a counteroffer that matches or exceeds that number.

Counteroffers can be flattering but BEWARE – accepting the offer could be career suicide. Attorneys who accept counteroffers consistently tell us that they are less satisfied in the long run. Studies have shown that many people who accept counteroffers end up leaving their positions within six months to a year anyway because the underlying causes of career dissatisfaction have not been resolved.

After placing thousands of attorneys with law firms and in-house legal departments, Special Counsel has found that preparing for the emotional blackmail prior to resignation can make the difference between a successful transition to a more satisfying career and the frustrating consequences of “giving in” to a counteroffer. Following these guidelines in your job search can make all the difference:

Write down your goals before you begin your search and revisit your list often.

It is critical to be honest with yourself and understand your motivations when you first consider exploring your employment options. Recording and focusing on your motivations allows you to better evaluate opportunities and provides you with a concrete reminder of what is really important to you in a career. A self assessment can also help you to recognize whether the time is right to make a move. For example, if you are happy with every aspect of your current position except for your level of compensation, and your motivation for seeking a new job offer is to position yourself for a counteroffer, you should reevaluate your decision. In short, be sure that your intention to make a change is sincere and not an attempt to elicit a raise from your current employer.

Don’t succumb to “emotional blackmail”- you began a job search for a reason.

Statistics show that accepting a counteroffer often backfires – even when the counteroffer meets or exceeds the competing offer in terms of salary. Before accepting a counteroffer (and possibly reneging on your acceptance of your new position), again consider why you began looking for a different job in the first place and why you accepted your new position. Looking back on your written list of motivating factors can help.

Change is about more than money.

Money is important, but more often than not, a career change is motivated by many factors in addition to compensation. Although your current employer may be willing to match or exceed your pending offer, it is unlikely that the circumstances of your employment will significantly change. For example, many attorneys are motivated to change jobs because they would like to earn more money and work on more sophisticated matters. Other attorneys seek opportunities in new geographical areas, others seek new practice areas. Sometimes the motivating factor may be for opportunities that allow for a more flexible schedule or opportunities that allow them to progress more rapidly. Still other attorneys simply do not feel as though they “fit” with their current firm and are really looking for a position that offers them an atmosphere that is more in sync with their personality. Even if your current firm or corporate legal department raises your salary to match the other offer, it is highly unlikely that the circumstances at your current firm that made you unsatisfied will change. Recognizing this at the start can save a lot of heartache and trouble in the long run. In short, don’t let the “emotional blackmail” of a counteroffer be a deterrent – you sought to make a change and accepted another position for a good reason.

When assessing a counteroffer, be aware that your counteroffer may merely be a future raise in disguise.

Take a hard look at where the money for your counteroffer is coming from. It could be that the extra money is merely your next raise a few months in advance and not really a long-term increase in pay. Many firms compensate their attorneys in “lock step,” and a raise for you could “rock the boat” for the entire firm. Once your colleagues hear about your counteroffer, they may demand a raise in pay as well. You might also ask yourself the hard question of why you felt under-appreciated and under-compensated in the first place. Do you really want to work for an organization that only treats you the way you feel you deserve to be treated when you threaten to leave? Will you have to repeat this pattern again and again as new issues come along? Are you simply applying a band-aid to a job situation that can’t be salvaged?

Recognize that accepting a counteroffer may jeopardize your chances at partnership or promotion.

Counteroffers may play a role when it comes to partnership and promotion decisions. Counteroffers almost always follow an announcement of resignation. Whether justified or not, the act of resignation is often interpreted as an act of disloyalty and can negatively impact the trusting relationship you previously shared with the members of your firm or company. That’s not to say that an associate who has been offered and accepts a counteroffer will never be made partner – but, recognize that you will have your work cut out for you.

It may be that accepting a counteroffer is the right decision in the end. Regardless of what decision you make, working through the points outlined in this article and often returning to your list of career goals will help ensure that the decision you made was done for all the right reasons.

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