Do Titles Matter?

Many lawyers believe that titles indicate the respect they deserve and show advancement in one’s career. Indeed, when negotiating offers, some candidates want to obtain a more senior-level title than the one they currently have – not only does it make them feel validated, but they believe that it sets them up for further success/advancement down the road. Although a great title can be exciting and rewarding, you need to realize that it is just one factor to consider in a job offer. If you are seriously contemplating making a job change, are you willing to walk away from a great, new opportunity if the title is not exciting enough? Consider the following:


1.     Titles vary widely from one to company to the next. In some companies, “Associate General Counsel” is a level above “Assistant General Counsel”, and in other companies, the reverse is true.   Also, one company’s “Senior Corporate Counsel” can be called “Senior Counsel” at another company or “Associate Director”. Further, some companies have “Deputy General Counsel” levels and others do not have that level at all. One client recently explained to me that they only have “Senior Corporate Counsel” and “Assistant General Counsel” titles below the General Counsel level to keep clarity – they feel that the “Associate General Counsel” and “Deputy General Counsel” titles would make the levels confusing.

The fact that titles can vary so widely from one company to the next matters to you when deciding to make a move. In short, you need to understand the organization’s structure of titles. If you are currently a “Senior Counsel” and will only make a move for a better title, you may decide not to explore another “Senior Counsel” or similar title. What you may not realize is that a certain company’s “Senior Counsel” role may actually be higher than your current role. A seemingly “lateral” move may not in fact be lateral when you take a closer look.

Even if the move is lateral in title, perhaps the geography, compensation, and overall opportunity for advancement are markedly better. Perhaps at your current company titles are diluted and there is no real room to advance. If you get fixated on the title, you could really do a disservice to your career. You may want to explore similar-sounding titles. Be open to learning about the organization’s structure and reasoning for certain titles.


2.     Titles can be deceiving when it comes to indicating compensation. You cannot determine the level of compensation for an in-house attorney by his/her title. Some lawyers placed at the Assistant General Counsel level may earn less than Senior Corporate Counsel level lawyers in the same industry and same Frequently, the bonus percentage and long term incentive compensation amount are the variables. Many companies have certain bonus target levels and incentives tied to certain titles, but there is not an overwhelming consistency across corporations. Moreover, some companies have bonuses that are tied to company performance, as opposed to personal performance – that factor can certainly affect compensation, regardless of title.

In a recent placement, a lawyer-candidate accepted a title that was virtually lateral to his current position. When I inquired about the importance of title to him, he aptly stated that “the company can call me whatever they want, because the title does not pay my bills”. He is a lawyer who has been in-house for a fairly long time, and he has come to realize that titles do not matter that significantly with respect to compensation. His statement may glance too lightly over the title issue, and I completely understand one’s desire to advance to better titles over time, but his sentiment does have merit. There are many factors that affect compensation that many lawyers fail to investigate and consider: the track record of the company and the historical payout of the bonus; whether equity is part of the compensation plan and the vesting schedule for it; how much personal performance is weighted for bonuses, and who makes said determination; and the current success of that specific industry.

When you consider making a move, make sure that you balance your desire for a better title with realism about the in-house marketplace. Titles do not determine compensation in a vacuum.


3.     Titles can be modified/created in the negotiation process. Many lawyers believe that titles are set in stone by the companies without negotiation. Of course, there are many instances in which that is true – you are given a certain title determined by your level of experience. This rigidity is more common in larger organizations, where there is a very clear tried-and-true hierarchy. In smaller, growing companies, and/or when you are dealing with a niched/specialty role, however, there may be some flexibility. This potential flexibility with title is sometimes illustrated at the beginning of a search. Indeed, some companies will advertise title options in the job description, leaving the company the discretion to choose the appropriate title for the specific person ultimately hired for the role (i.e., “Senior Counsel” or “Associate General Counsel” depending upon level of experience).

In two recent in-house placements, we worked with the companies to craft titles that would be amenable to the lawyers. This conversation occurred during the negotiation phase after the offers had been made. Both lawyers felt strongly that the proffered title was not sufficient for their level of experience, and we worked with both of them to help create a title that would give them more respect in the marketplace, but would not upset the internal teams at the companies.

If you cannot negotiate the title you want, do not let that be a deal-breaker by itself. Make sure you ask the company when you will be evaluated for the next “step up” in title, because the answer may be encouraging. Do not assume that if the company will not give you the title you want, it is because they do not value you. Frequently, the company will understand your reasons for wanting that title, but the hiring principal is constrained by internal equity levels within the company and cannot grant a specific, higher title for you. On balance, consider the title as one factor in a job offer, negotiate it if you can, and ultimately make a decision about whether the job is what you want.


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