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The Show Must Go On

Evaluating the bright lights of a new job while gracefully closing the curtain on an old one.
By Brad Baber

March/April 2006 Issue

It has been said that the average American worker spends a third of his or her life at work, a third sleeping and another third doing everything else. Knowing this, my advice is to invest in a comfortable mattress and get a good job. And by good job, I mean one that is personally fulfilling and financially rewarding. This might require you to take your show on the road, but you still can leave your current job with class and style.

The stigma of several job changes over the course of a career has all but disappeared in today’s work environment. Nowadays, hiring managers are accustomed to seeing résumés with more than a few workplace transitions, and five years in the same position is viewed as job stability. You should feel comfortable making a job change — if you do so properly. This is accomplished by paying attention to two key points: making the right decision and exiting your company with grace.

The Big Decision
Let’s say you are presented a new opportunity, either as the result of a persuasive recruiter or a job search on your own initiative. In either case, carefully evaluating the opportunity will give you the best shot of landing a satisfying new position. Making a hasty decision or not considering all the facts can lead to a career disaster.

Adlai Stevenson, former Illinois governor and United Nations ambassador, once remarked, "Flattery is all right, if you don’t inhale." It’s nice to be wanted. It makes us feel good when our skills are sought after and a new company courts us. But be careful — deciding whom to work for should not be based on emotions. Of course, you need to feel good about your decision, but this is a time to put your head before your heart and thoroughly analyze the new opportunity.

If you are working with a headhunter, remember he or she has a personal incentive to get you to accept a job offer from a new company — usually to the tune of about 15 percent to 25 percent of your starting salary. Weigh headhunters’ words wisely and put their encouragement in the context of a solid analysis. Likewise, your potential new employer should not be too eager (i.e., desperate) to get you on board, and the new firm should want you to take the time to make the right decision for yourself. After all, presumably the firm wants to hire the right match for its company, too. A bad decision could cost thousands of dollars in time and training if you decide to leave.

Finally, examine your motivation for changing jobs. Every job has its good and bad points. Sometimes situations at work are temporarily disagreeable, but soon take a turn for the better. Are you really making a good career move, or are you escaping an unpleasant situation in your current job? Is there too much overtime, an uncooperative co-worker or a lower than normal salary increase? These situations might be satisfactorily resolved without having to end your employment in an otherwise good position. Talk to a supervisor or human resources representative before making the big decision to leave a job for a small reason. More importantly, be sure your motivation is to move toward the light of a great new opportunity, not run from the darkness of your current job.

A Five-Point Check
I have mentioned putting your head before your heart and conducting a solid analysis of any new job prospects. To do that, you need to examine your new opportunities from five key perspectives.

1. Job duties. Be sure to get a clear understanding of your areas of responsibility, the tasks you will be performing, your new firm’s goals for you, who you will be interacting with and what tools you will need (technological and otherwise) to do your job. Many companies will, and should, provide you with an official job description. Many job descriptions include fine print language, for example, "…and such other duties that may from time to time be assigned." Ask what these other duties could include before you sign on with a new firm.

2. Co-workers. If you spend a third of your life working, more than likely you will spend as much of your waking hours with your co-workers as with your spouse, family or significant other. The people we work with often can make or break the work experience. Usually circumstances don’t allow you to know your supervisor or co-workers very well before you accept a new position, but your time will be well-invested if you meet as many people as you can during the interview process. When possible, conduct informal reference checks on a new supervisor to see what reputation he or she has. After all, you probably will be spending a lot of time with these people after you begin your new job.

3. The firm. Conduct thorough due diligence on the organization where you will spend so much of your time. Ask questions during the interview process to get a sense of the firm’s culture and long-term goals. If the firm has a mission statement, get a copy. If you don’t know the reputation or history of the company, be resourceful. Conduct online research and ask around to see what the word on the street is about the firm.

4. Compensation. Compensation generally comes in four parts: base pay, overtime, bonuses and benefits (including stock options and retirement contributions). Eligibility for benefits often is nonnegotiable when joining a new firm, and in the case of retirement and 401(k) plans, participation and amounts might be set by laws and plan rules. Be sure to get a sense of the full range of insurance, parking and travel supplements, and long-term savings options and what costs you are expected to assume. Inquire about average bonus amounts, bonus criteria and how much overtime you can expect to work.

The area where firms generally have the most flexibility to negotiate compensation is in base pay. This topic could be an article unto itself, but you should expect a minimum of 5 percent to 6 percent increase in base compensation when moving to a new job. Anything in the 10 percent to 15 percent range should be considered a good offer. For most paralegal jobs, an offer that comes in above 25 percent higher than your current base salary is rare and indicates either very good fortune for you, or that something is askew with your current salary or with the new employer.

In formulating an offer, law firms and legal departments usually consider what a person with similar skills and experience might be making in the same locale. This is accomplished by using salary surveys. There are several good sources for this information. Most law firms and law departments rely on surveys prepared by the Association of Legal Administrators, International Paralegal Management Association and the surveys of a few private consulting firms. Online salary Web sites are not the most comprehensive or valid indicators of job market salaries and generally are not considered a good source for this information.

Like you, most employers have the goal of making sure you are fairly compensated. They seldom are out to get a bargain. In the long run, dealing with an underpaid employee in an organization is time-consuming and costly, so most firms strive to be sure their employees are fairly paid from day one.

5. Career growth. Mentioned previously, your transition to a new position should be motivated by moving toward something you want to accomplish as part of your career plan. This could be to gain new experience, build new skills or to do the work you ultimately want to do. If you have a clear direction in mind, be sure that accepting the offer on the table will get you where you want to go.

Go With Grace

You have made the decision to accept a position at another firm, and now it’s time to turn your attention to exiting the old firm. Leaving a company seldom is an enjoyable process. It’s always hard to deliver bad news. Put aside any feelings of guilt and have confidence that you are taking your career in a positive direction. Companies expect some turnover, and believe it or not, your new employer will survive without you.

Regardless of the reason for your departure, never burn a bridge and always exit the stage with grace. This might mean biting your tongue and exercising your best diplomatic skills when giving notice or during an exit interview. It’s in your best interest to do so. Anything less could result in you being haunted by your words
or poor judgment, or worse, being excluded from a future opportunity.

Aside from your good conduct, here are most of the components of resigning from a job that will give you more insight into the process and what you can expect.

Proper notice. A minimum of two weeks notice is expected for most paralegal positions. Employers might request longer notice — three to four weeks — if you hold a high-level position. The notice period might be negotiated depending on the job, circumstances of departure or any number of factors.

Letter of resignation. Employers normally will ask for a formal letter of resignation. It’s common practice to deliver a letter to your supervisor when you meet with him or her to announce your resignation. Some people send them by interoffice mail, but I believe a personal delivery is a nicer touch. "Short and sweet" usually is a good rule of thumb for the letter of resignation. The letter should state what your last day will be and typically sets the tone for a friendly departure by indicating your appreciation for the opportunity to work with the firm. It’s unnecessary, and rarely beneficial, to explain who your new employer will be or how you came to your decision. Limit any details or explanations to a conversation with your supervisor or human resources representative. You simply can state that you are excited to have accepted another opportunity that will advance your career.

Conversation with supervisors. For paralegals, I believe it’s best to announce your departure from the firm in a personal conversation with a manager (e.g., a paralegal manager, legal administrator or office manager, depending on how your firm is organized) and your supervising attorneys. It doesn’t matter which comes first.

While everyone hates to see a good employee leave, managers and attorneys should expect some departures in staff from time to time and should receive your message well. If the working relationship has been positive, they will be happy you have landed a great new opportunity, even though they might regret that you are leaving. If the working relationship has been strained, they most likely will be politely pleased to receive your notice. In either event, in this conversation, I think it’s fine to say who your new employer will be and share how this transition will be a good one for you and your career.

In the spirit of good will, you might offer to make yourself available by phone, within reason, after you leave the company to answer questions as your work is transitioned to others within the old firm. The key here and throughout this process is to always be polite and positive. If you must give criticism, make it constructive and put it in the best possible light.

The counter-offer. In some instances, your firm might entice you to stay by making a counter-offer of a higher salary or better benefits. Some firms have a policy of not making counter-offers. If you have done a careful analysis of the new opportunity, and you are confident you are leaving for the right reasons, then it should be easy to evaluate and respond to any counter-offer. Don’t let money cloud the issue of your career advancement. However, if you generally are happy with your current employment, and the main reason you are leaving is salary, you might want to entertain a counter-offer. As you do your final analysis of this career transition, be very clear about what it would take, if anything, to make you stay with your current firm.

The exit interview. Many firms ask that employees meet with a human resources representative or manager to find out what the employee can expect in terms of final pay, pay-out for unused vacation time and benefits, and the employee’s rights regarding continuation of medical insurance coverage.

The other purpose of an exit interview is to get the perspective of the departing employee on his or her experience with the firm in a continual effort to improve the work environment. This is an opportunity to use your best judgment and diplomatic skills to leave everyone with the impression that they would love to have you back in the future.

From a manager’s perspective, this process is more meaningful if the employee is very candid. From the employee’s perspective, the No. 1 priority is to go with grace. You should carefully balance your words to be honest in your constructive feedback, and bring the most positive perspective to any negatives that are discussed. A savvy manager or human resources professional can read between the lines and often will hear what is not said in an exit interview. And remember, it’s OK to say: "I don’t know," or "I am not comfortable discussing that."

Stay in touch. The legal community, even in the largest of cities, is a small world. Who you know can play a role in your success, and opportunities often come about from personal contacts. The people at your old firm are no exception to the rule. I recommend staying in touch with former co-workers or supervisors as you advance in your career. You never know when a short phone call or e-mail exchange will land another personal or professional opportunity on your doorstep.

A Positive Move

Changing jobs today is a natural part of our ever-changing work environment. Just be sure you are doing it correctly. Take the time to make the right career decision for yourself, and always leave your current situation on good terms. I am reminded of good show business wisdom that definitely applies in this case — accept only good parts, and always leave them wanting more. n


Brad Baber is the paralegal manager in Troutman Sanders’ Atlanta office. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Wabash College in Indiana and a paralegal certificate from Midlands Technical College in South Carolina. He has more than 15 years of paralegal management experience and formerly worked as a paralegal in the areas of bankruptcy and litigation. He has been an instructor in an American Bar Association-approved paralegal program and is a former expert columnist for LAT. Baber is an active member of the Legal Assistant Management Association.