I am a fairly new admittee to the bar in the state where I live (just under 2 years). For the past 2 years I have been working in a quasi-legal position that was created just for me. Recently, I’ve been feeling a serious internal pull towards a more traditional legal career and a litigation position has opened up on my company that I plan to apply for. My concern is that I feel some allegiance to my current supervisor because she brought me in, but I am convinced that the traditional position would be a better career move. How do I tell my supervisor that I am applying for an internal position without losing her trust?
This is one of the hardest questions, I think — and one that comes up frequently. I would first caution you to learn as much about the position without talking to your supervisor — are you really a good fit, or are they looking for someone with a lot of litigation experience already? The person who recently vacated this position may be the best person to talk to first. If you decide to go for it and want to talk with your supervisor, I’d take her out to lunch and say something like this:
“I wanted to talk with you about something delicate — the litigation position that just opened up. I can’t begin to tell you how much your mentoring has meant to me over the past two years, and I trust your advice with regards to my career. When I saw that there was a recent opening, I got excited because it seems like I would be a perfect fit — particularly given that I already know the company so well and so many of the legal issues that arise. What are your thoughts?”
Some points to pull out from those brief sentences:
- Cut to the chase quickly. If you find yourself fumbling for words or have some perfectly planned but long intro, she may be sitting there wondering “Has she already found another job? Is she quitting right now?” and not listen to a word you’re saying. Don’t lose her attention like that — put it on the table as quickly and as clearly as possible as you can.
- Focus first on what you can bring to the company, not what the company/position will give to you. You’ve got some huge strengths over any other candidate that you should call out immediately, such as your knowledge of both the issues that you’ve seen in your “quasi-legal” position as well as the players involved (such as, I’m guessing, the inside and outside lawyers). You hopefully know who to go to in the company to get information you need (or where to go in the company files). This all will help you hit the ground running if and when you start. I would treat this as a quasi job interview and go in prepared to discuss some of your top achievements in your quasi-legal position, as well as evidence of how you’ve grown in the position. As always, I advise you to try to think of your three best qualities as a worker, and give them life by finding correlating stories, in this case, preferably from your two years of employment with that company.
- Asking her for advice is a good way to broach the subject and it will give you some ideas of where to go from there. In an ideal world she’ll say “What a great idea, I was thinking the same thing!” and be your advocate to the Powers That Be. However, she may also say any of the following kind of things, and you should be prepared to rebut or discuss any of them in a friendly, non-argumentative, advice-seeking manner. For example:
- “But we can’t lose you!” Are you really irreplaceable in your current job? What would your transition plan be to leave your current job? Wouldn’t your inside knowledge of the company make the transition into the new job easier for the company?
- “But you’re not qualified!” I don’t know the specifics of your role, but if you’ve only worked in a quasi-legal capacity for the company (such as a paralegal role) that may not equate, at all, to the kind of experience an in-house company would expect from a lawyer who has been gaining experience with a law firm. In that event, ask more questions to understand the role that’s open — what specific types of things would you be handling? Would there be anyone above you to mentor you? One thing to consider — if you truly think this is the best career move for you — is whether you’d be open to other options, such as taking a salary somewhere between your current one and the one offered for the position for a temporary, well-defined “learning” time period, designed to ensure that if you’re leaning heavily on the other lawyers that the company is at least saving some money from the experience. Let me be clear, though — the last thing you want is to get into some situation where the company gives you more work (such as litigation work) in addition to your current quasi-legal job without extra salary or a new title. If she really does not think you are currently qualified for the role, is there anything you can do in your current position to get more qualified the next time such a position opens up?
- <Stunned bitter silence> I’ve had some bosses who would have given me the stink eye if I brought up something like this, and if this is the response you get then you need to figure out why they’re reacting this way. Sometimes it’s more about them (they’re thinking selfish thoughts like “Now I have to retrain someone” or “I thought she could handle X but now I have to” or “Why doesn’t she like working with me?”); other times it might legitimately be about you and your competence to do the job. I’m hoping your current boss isn’t one of those people, but if it is then you just have to really prepare yourself to draw her out. What are her hesitations? Doesn’t she think that you would be able to hit the ground running? Doesn’t she think you’ve mastered your current roster of duties and would be better for the company elsewhere?
Finally, a word of advice: you are putting yourself on the line here. No company is going to fire you for aspiring to be in a better position, but it may hurt your relationship with your current boss as well as your prospects for advancement in your quasi-legal role. So I would cover my bases by looking to see if there are other open jobs that you should be applying for at the same time as this current job. Set up a search on a career site like Monster.com or The Ladders, put a call in to your school’s career center, and contact a recruiter.
Readers, what advice do you have for reader S? Have you ever tried to change jobs but not companies?