Monday, September 24, 2012

What's in a name?

When talking to a firm lawyer, you can generally get an idea about their general level of experience, range of billable rate and the extent that they may have decision making ability based on their title.  There are exceptions of course, but for the most part this is true.  It makes it slightly easier when negotiating with them as you already have some basic information about them.  The rest you can generally get off the firm website.

None of that holds true for in house counsel.  Can you tell anything reliable from a title of a staff counsel, corporate counsel, assistant general counsel, associate general counsel, deputy general counsel, director of legal, vp, or division general counsel? Not really.  Depending on the size of the company and the size of the legal department you might have a general counsel with 4-5 years experience negotiating an agreement with a assistant general counsel with 20 years experience.  A corporate counsel may be responsible for managing all legal affairs for the Americas while a VP of Legal may only manage the litigation for their company.  To throw another wrench in the mix, when dealing with start ups, the general counsel may only have 5 years of legal experience, but has been involved in the business since the garage days and understands every aspect of the deal much more than the 20 year vet who only does transactions.  The young GC may also have a lot more influence with the executive team and the board than a director at a larger company whose never met the board.

In the in house world, a title can be absolutely worthless in sizing up the opposition. However, they can be huge negotiating points when hiring on new talent.  Lawyers are by nature an egocentric bunch.  It's why so many of us sign off on letters as "Esquire" (a habit that I always make fun of when I get letters signed this way).  And why some lawyers will ridiculously call themselves "doctors" just because there's a doctorate in the degree.  While we probably aren't trying too hard to recruit those guys, trying to get a qualified candidate to head up your litigation management or to manage the millions of dollars in transactions you do each year is going to be hard if you post an opening for "counsel".

At the same time, you're not doing anyone a favor by hiring a first year and calling him a VP.  Striking the balance between what is appropriate and what is desirable can be difficult.  Especially for smaller companies who don't have large, structured law departments and don't typically pay as well.  A trade off for a higher salary might require a better title.  Which of course might invoke jealousy in current members of the team.  Hiring a new deputy general counsel to manage a specialized, hard to fill area won't sit well with your existing crew if they're all stuck at corporate counsel.

It's a good idea to have a succession plan of titles to give your team something to grow into and achieve.  Having a good set of criteria as to when someone would qualify for the title is critical, as is having a good idea of when to set aside that criteria.  Messaging to your team about what, if anything, the titles they carry convey to the rest of the company is also important.  Keep in mind that the title will also convey a meaning, weather accurate or not, to the outside world.  A world that includes the opposition as well as parents, spouses, friends and family.  Sometimes a nice title is all that's needed to keep a valued employee happy.  

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