I have an offer from a competing firm, so should I accept my current firm’s counteroffer?

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Roger Boord

I am an associate who has recently informed my firm that I have accepted a position at a competing firm. My firm told me they were “devastated” to learn that I was planning to leave. They then offered me more money, “better” work and a “much greater” chance of making partner if I changed my mind and stayed! Should I accept my firm’s counteroffer?

Answer: (PART I).

No, you should not. Also, while this essay uses an example of an associate, the advice is just as valid for a partner. To one who is unfamiliar with these situations, it might seem that accepting law firm "counteroffers" would typically be "close calls" where the correct answer would depend on the particular facts. The reality is that it is usually an easy call. So much so that there is actually a general rule in the industry that says that candidates should NOT take counteroffers except in extraordinary circumstances. Many candidates in this situation cite a natural inclination to stay with "the devil you know" rather than have to go through the inconveniences of a firm change and "proving oneself" all over again. However, this common emotional response is not a good reason to ignore the clear dangers of a counteroffer.

To understand why accepting a counteroffer is generally a bad idea, one needs to understand what a counteroffer normally represents. Some recruiters have compared accepting a counteroffer to "putting down your gun to hug the bear," with the "bear" being the current firm and the "gun"representing the offer to go to another firm. At the moment you have aimed your gun at the bear, your whole relationship with the bear/firm changes. You have now revealed that you have serious issues with your firm, that you no longer want to work there and that you actually prefer to work fora competitor. As a result, you will no longer be seen as a valued part of the firm, but rather as a disgruntled and disloyal individual no one wants to have around anymore. You will no longer be trustedat your firm again. Your career there is essentially over.

Accepting a counteroffer is NOT going to change that new reality. This is because, regardless of how much your firm praises you and offers to give to you, the counteroffer really has nothing to do with you. Rather, it has to do with the best interests of the partners in your firm, who want to save face for "letting you go" and who want to buy precious time for you to continue handling their busy workload until they can find someone else. Do you really believe the partners' nebulous promises of "better" work and "much greater" chances of partnerships will actually come to fruition after you have been permanently enshrined in the firm's doghouse? Or is it much more likely that the partners will care more about their work getting done without disruption by associates with unquestioned loyalty to the firm? Going back to the analogy, once you have aimed the gun at the bear, you must shoot it dead (that is, leave your firm) so it can no longer do you any harm. If you instead put down your gun and "hug the bear" (stay with your firm), the bear will eat (dump) you once it finds a replacement, as that is what is in the bear's best interest to do. This is the primary reason why you should generally not accept counteroffers.

In short, the usual purpose behind counteroffers is so clear that partners may lose respect for associates not only because of their disloyalty, but also because of their foolishness in accepting a counteroffer. Don't be a sucker. Talk to your recruiter and look out for your true best interest.

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