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Counter offers: not all that glitters is gold

As law firms find the battle for attracting lawyers more and more challenging, the focus on preventing people leaving will only increase and with this the likelihood that, if you try and move firms, there will be a counter offer. But is that receipt flattering, compelling or dangerous?

At first impression it is certainly a complimentary conversation when ones current employer is prepared to offer a pay rise, greater flexibility, a sought after secondment or a promise to allow focus on particular work. Delving below the surface, however, all may not be as attractive as it appears. Industry-wide research indicates that, of the people who accept counter offers, nearly 50% return to the jobs market within twelve months. There are 4 main reasons for this: reneged promises, short term fixes ending, continued frustrations and the employer disconnecting.

Taking those individually:

Aside from a pay rise one of the most common things which firms promise to people looking to leave is a change in work, clients, supervisor or non-fee earning responsibilities. These are easily said but more challenging to deliver on. Having been the recipient of one of these promises before I moved into recruitment, I know how persuasive they can be. I didn't accept the offer because structurally I just couldn't see how what the company was offering could be done in their structure. This is the big problem with these promises. Although they are given with the best of intentions, organisations which have an established way of operating are simply unable to adjust that easily. As a result people who are convinced by this element of a counter offer regularly wait six or twelve months and find that nothing has changed… back to the job hunt.

Another common element of a counter offer is a client secondment. I have seen this offered to people who I am working with as well as people working with my colleagues and it can be extremely persuasive. One example is an individual offered a once in a lifetime opportunity for a secondment to a major client who was hosting an international sporting event which was of great interest to the person. Something like that is very difficult to turn down however it only lasts 6 months, sometimes 12 months, and then it will be back to the same role as before the secondment. The employer will hope that the short term fix means that the person’s attention is distracted and they don't revisit the idea of leaving the company. Normally they do.

Even with a large pay rise the frustrations which gave rise to the job search in the first instance rarely go away. From speaking with a great number of lawyers in London I am personally very aware that money is not the primary motivator for most career moves. That doesn't mean it is irrelevant, there is always a bottom line or a number which makes things very attractive, but I have not met a lawyer who will take a position solely for the money. There are always other reasons tied to the work, culture, colleagues, partners or flexibility. In exactly the same way that there needs to be more than just more money to move, if one is looking for a move then there will need to be more than merely an increase in money to stay. This is a very challenging position to be in and keep a clear head - looking a substantial pay rise in the face and walking away takes bravery but I know people who have done it and been extremely glad to have stuck to their guns.

Finally, despite a flattering counter offer which might seem to cover the bases and address all concerns, there is still a risk that having shown a willingness to look outside the firm an employer will disconnect from your career progression and development. The reaction is damage prevention; expecting a departure the focus shifts to finding a replacement and avoid a hole in their team or a rushed recruit. For the individual who accepted the counter offer, however, their days can be numbered.

Once there is a foot out of the door it is best to get out completely. Prolonging the exit process is never good and being convinced to stay only to shortly go back into the job market can cause long term damage to your career (not least because the firm who have gone all the way through the process with you in good faith might be very unimpressed). And, quite importantly, what does it say about your employer that they only chose to deal with the concerns when threatened with a resignation. If you have to hold a gun to your employer before they deliver what you need, then they're probably not the best place to continue developing your career in the way you want.

If you would like to discuss options, the recruitment market or long-term career goals then contact Luke Woodward at Chadwick Nott for a confidential conversation.

Luke Woodward
0203 096 4553

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