Changing Jobs, But Not Companies

Fork in the Road, originally uploaded to Flickr by Randy Levine.Reader S wonders how one can change jobs without changing companies — including getting your current boss to champion the change.

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?”

(Pictured above: Fork in the Road, originally uploaded to Flickr by Randy Levine.)

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 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?


  1. This is my dream. I like my company, but my job and my boss – in particular – suck. Unfortunately, my department is the only one in the company (except for a small group in NJ) that does reporting and business intelligence.

    I guess I only have 2 options: look for another job (already doing that) and hope that my boss ends up leaving somehow.

    • This is my story too – I have a great lead on a related-but-different position with a different practice area in my company, but my current boss is a total jerk & is notorious for taking employee departures (internal or external) personally. Sadly I have realized that he would continue to have enough of an effect on my career in the new position that I just have to look elsewhere.

    • I tried unsuccessfully to do this at my last firm. The woman I worked for was difficult, to say the least. I worked very hard to gracefully move within the firm, but ultimately, no one wanted to take the fallout from my boss. They were also concerned about finding my replacement. It didn’t matter, though; I ended up leaving the firm for a much better job at a small shop.

      Ideally, a supervisor should be supportive, but keep in mind the politics both in getting the new gig and making sure you’re replaced with a competent person at the old one.

  2. spacegeek :

    Just did this recently and was met with good results. (I’m in the running for the position.)
    I encourage folks to do it, as no one can understand your aspirations unless you talk about them!

  3. A good mentor should want you to succeed. If this boss doesn’t support you reaching for something higher, find a different mentor who will.

    • Curl Friend :

      But what if you can’t? Mentors don’t grow on trees.

    • Amen. Any good mentor/supervisor will want you to do well – after all it’s a reflection on their good leadership.

  4. I saw this happen a lot with compliance and attorney roles when I worked in-house in the securities industry (I am an associated at a law firm now, doing securities law). It *really* varied from company to company. I worked for two different firms, but had friends at other firms, and it was different at every single one, and also depending on which sides of the compliance business people were moving from/to. Some compliance positions were so quasi legal that the only thing differentiating them from legal positions were whether the attorney was permitted to sign Esq. on behalf of the company, while other compliance positions were not legal or regulatory, but far more risk/metrics-based.

    I think Kat’s advice is very solid – depending on the size/culture of your company, your boss’s incentives may be aligned in a way where you moving may hurt her, or not. I worked for a firm senior people were rewarded for training good talent that rose elsewhere in the company just as much as if the person kept rising as one of their direct reports. It really depends.

    All the best to Reader S.

  5. I recommend that you play out future scenarios in your mind before you have any conversation. Kat has given a very good sampling of possible reactions. But you know your supervisor, and can maybe come up with some others. You need to be sure you really want the other job, otherwise the most likely outcome will be your current manager talking you into staying. Don’t let that happen unless it’s what you want, otherwise you wind up even MORE committed to a job you don’t really like.

  6. Alternatives... :

    I recommend thinking about NOT mentioning it to your current mentor and asking the interviewers to keep this confidential until you get far into the process. Once you are really close to getting it (or even afetr you have an offer), you can bring it up to your current boss the way everyone suggests. You can phrase is as seeking advice because you have choices and are not sure what is better for you.
    You have to be aware that you may not get the job, and if you already told your boss that you interviewed, she may look at you differently (not quite happy, flight risk, etc) and your current job may change. I hate hiding things from people I like, but sometimes it is important to do so to avoid hurting your career if things don’t turn out the way you hope.
    It depends on the personality of the boss. I work at a lawfirm so I have many “bosses.” While I have mentors who do everything in their power to help me, I have others, great also, who feel more protective and take that stuff as a personal betrayal, and yet others who would consider that in that case I am not worth investing time in because I am unhappy and will leave. I would not risk it until being pretty certain it would not hurt my current job.
    Finally, have you considered asking that other department if you can help them pick up the slack? It might mean more hours for you for a bit, but you would get to try out the job to see if you really prefer it, and maybe even convince them that you are a great fit without even interviewing. Also, it might make the transition smoother with your current boss – it is easier to say that you are taking a little extra work to expand your expertise, than to say you are unhappy and want to switch departments. Even if you decide you don’t like it or don’t get it, you made connections internally, which never hurts.

    • Curl Friend :

      Not telling the current boss at the outset is risky. Too much of chance of her feeling betrayed or used. It sounds as if she was instrumental in the writer getting her current job.

      Very tricky.

      • I agree. If the new department isn’t really that familiar with your work, chances are it will ask your boss about your performance at some point along the way. It just seems like it’s a bad plan to have that contact be the first time the current boss hears about the desire to switch positions. This is especially the case if you might be working with your old boss closely in this new job. In my office, most of the people in quasi-legal positions work closely with attorneys, so a bad relationship there would really harm your chances of getting the attorney position.

  7. I think was has not been addressed is many companies, particularly larger ones, will not consider a JD without traditional legal experience (particularly in a well-respected law firm) for an in-house position. I would research the qualifications of the other attorneys in the legal deparment first. In my experience, if you are only 2 years out of school and have only worked in a non-traditional role, most legal departments will not consider this type of candidate.

    • Curl Friend :

      I didn’t completely understand the circumstances from the post. If your reading is correct, you raise a very valid point.

  8. Be Careful :

    You have to consider the possibility that if you ask anyone in the new department (including the person who just left the position) anything about the new position, they will tell your current boss. Even if you ask them not to. Even if they promise not to. Happens at my company all the time.

  9. I recently made a similar move and am now in the job of my dreams. Whether you tell your current boss at the beginning or wait until you have an offer is dependent on a number of factors: how your current boss will react, how your prospective boss will feel about keeping things confidential, what kind of interaction you might have with your current boss in this potential position.

    For me, I asked for the interview to be kept confidential until I had a chance to discuss with my then-current boss, and the woman who is my now-current boss was totally supportive and understanding, which made me feel that she was a good fit as a supervisor/mentor. I think it also helped that I was clear that I wanted to be the one to discuss my departure with my then-current boss as a courtesy to everyone involved.

    I also did not use my then-current boss as a reference because I had two previous supervisors and and a person who was at a level between my then-current boss and myself who I trusted to give excellent references.

  10. Anon Canadian :

    I actually just went through this situation. I work in a University and internal movement is extremely common. People often change offices, divisions, faculties, or campuses but they don’t often leave the University.

    In my office there are two teams: Admission and Registration. From Summer 2009 to Christmas 2010 I was a member of both team and had two supervisors. I did work more closely with Admissions and had a better relationship with that supervisor as well as a better understanding of that team the what they did.

    The next year a member of the Registration team with a higher position then mine announced she was retiring and the Admission supervisor encouraged me to go for the position, even though she was not looking forward to loosing me at Admissions’ busiest time. The Registration supervisor, who would be my sole supervisor if I got the position, said absolutely nothing and I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it. At that point I wasn’t even sure if I wanted the job, but I started to worry that she didn’t want me in the position and I worried about my job performance and even whether she liked me or not.

    About a week after the job was actually posted the Registration supervisor asked me into her office so we could discuss why I hadn’t applied yet and to encourage me to do so soon if it was my plan. We had a great conversation and she explained that she didn’t want to sway me either way and I told her about my reservations and asked for her insight, which she gave freely. She strongly encouraged me and gave me some really good feed back.

    In the end I applied, got the position and have been in it now for 7 months. And we’ve been able to maintain the open and constructive relationship that we started.

    I know that things might not work out that way for everyone and that this might be a little naive, but this is just another example to me of “If you ask, the worst that can be said is no”. I was so worried and all I had to do was go and talk to her.

  11. DC Lawyer :

    You’ll want to be really careful here. I agree with Crockett that at large companies, new litigation attorneys invariably seem to come from one of the lawfirms servicing the company. New openings may be advertised, but often the candidate is already identified. You should look very carefully at the experience of the litigation attorneys currently on staff to determine where they came from, how long they were in litigation practice and whether they had ties to the company before being hired. In the current legal climate, corporate jobs are rare and highly coveted, and competition for the job may be fierce. You want to be protective of the good job you already have.

  12. You know, I have seen people do this successfully, even in large companies in questionable economies. The answer to your question really comes down to the specifics of your company’s culture, your relationship with the people you work with and the specifics of the the job. If you are feeling unsure, I would recommend a number of things to see if it is a good risk:

    Talk to some people you work with who know you and your boss and find out how supportive your employer and boss specifically have been about these kinds of changes in the past. Some organizations really encourage this kind of thing.

    Talk to HR or someone in that new department to find out a little bit more about what they are looking for and express even a superficial interest. If you are really worried about your boss’s reaction, ask to do it off the record.

    Think very carefully about how much you wish to stay with an organization that doesn’t encourage your professional growth. Even if you don’t get this job, this could be a fantastic opportunity to get the people you work with to help you achieve your professional goals.

  13. I recently made a similar move at a national bank (moving from a quasi legal position to a traditional legal position). Although I had a good relationship with my old boss, I received a lot of unexpected negative backlash.

    My advice: (1) Check with HR and any company policies before pursuing an internal opportunity (my old manager actually accused me of not following policy); (2) Do not tell your manager about your aspirations until you are seriously being considered for the position.

    At my company the policy is to get your manager’s “blessing” before accepting a new job. I made the mistake of telling her too soon in the process (thinking that she would understand and support my decision) and then had to suffer a few awkard and sometime hostile months until I started my new position.

    Good luck!

  14. I’m kind of surprised at the responses to the question. Granted I’m not in the legal field and maybe it is that different. But these kind of internal moves happen in other industries all the time.

    In my journalism career, I moved from reporting news to writing editorials and my editor was happy to help me advance. She knew it was good for me and would be good for the paper as a whole. My husband is in the military, which is the ultimate company career and they change jobs every year or two. Again, good commanders are happy to see the people who work for them do well.

    I would advise Reader S to be humble and grateful for the opportunity her supervisor has given but also to be honest about where she wants her career to go.

  15. In my non-legal experience, you should talk to the hiring manager first if at all possible. If you have any colleagues working for that person you can talk to them first for an introduction. I’d want to feel out the manager to see if they are even interested in you and your experience before you tell your boss. If the transfer doesn’t work out it could alienate you the rest of your time there or make them think you’ve already “checked out” of your current position.

  16. I have the same dilemma, I was laid off almost 6yrs ago together with other 300 people working on the same project. I also had a supervisor who was very difficult to work with and I talked to her when she gave me a not so good review.
    The same company has an opening now for a position that I really like and where I am really qualified for. It’s a different different department from where I was before.
    Is it safe for me to apply again or will the relationship I had with my previous supervisor affect my application if I do apply for the opened position.

  17. For anyone who is surprised at the “legal’s” among the readership giving the advice of feeling out the new job before telling the current boss…

    My paralegal recently applied to a fabulous job at a different firm, better pay, better benefits, better working environment, etc…the other paralegals in the office also applied. When my paralegal got a call-back and they did not, they told the partner in charge of our group that she had applied elsewhere. My paralegal was immediately fired. Why the others were not remains a mystery since this partner is a notorious liar and cannot be trusted about anything. However, the story goes that the other paralegals told him that my paralegal was using her sick leave to go on these interviews. My paralegal had not used sick leave in at least two months. She had, however, used her vacation time.

    Granted, my firm is a sick, poisonous environment. But still.

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