Perspective: Why Secondments Are Even More Valuable to Law Firms Today

Feb. 26, 2016, 5:00 AM

Secondments, arrangements whereby attorneys are temporarily reassigned to a client’s legal department or to one of the firm’s international offices, are enriching experiences that enable attorneys to better counsel clients and firms to differentiate their service offerings.

While the time commitments of secondment arrangements range from three months to two years, secondments can facilitate attorney growth and development at a much faster rate than traditional associate positions, yielding a competitive advantage for the firm and attorney. Both structures provide the attorney with valuable experiences that benefit both the attorney and the firm. In particular, corporate secondments provide the attorney with in-house immersion experiences enabling deep client knowledge and relationships and international firm office secondments expose the attorney to transactions that mirror the global footprint of firm clients.

As the legal industry continues to become more competitive, secondments are a unique way for firms and their attorneys to differentiate themselves from their peers as they seek to meet and exceed clients’ needs. However, it is imperative that the firm and the individual attorney to be seconded are fully aware of the advantages and disadvantages of secondments prior to entering such arrangements.

This article discusses corporate and international secondments from the perspectives of the firm and the seconded attorney, and it functions as a tool for attorneys and firms considering secondment arrangements.

Attorney Perspective

Broadening Exposure at Firm

Secondments broaden the attorney’s exposure at the firm in two ways. First, secondments allow the attorney to become more familiar with the firm, its culture and global strategies. Through a corporate secondment the attorney gains deep awareness of the role the particular client plays in the firm’s client base, and through an international secondment the attorney learns the greater firm structure such that she will later be able to connect business opportunities with the correct person in the firm’s global network. Second, secondments allow the firm to know the attorney more. For attorneys with an eye on partnership, making connections with a diverse group of partners, whether that group includes internationally based partners or client-team partners, is advantageous.

Building External Network and Client Relationships

Both corporate and international secondments expand the attorney’s network. And, if managed correctly, both secondment structures provide the attorney with opportunities to build strong client relationships, which is beneficial to the partnership-track attorney as it may generate future business opportunities and to the non-partnership-track attorney as it may yield in-house career opportunities.

Producing Client-Desired Work Product

By working in a corporate setting or at one of the firm’s international offices, the attorney quickly learns the importance of clear, concise, and succinct work product and communication. In the international arena the attorney often works with clients who’s first language is not English and in the corporate setting the attorney’s client is the business team, which often requires a black and white answer free of legalese. Moreover, in a corporate secondment, the attorney often manages outside counsel, a role that will pay dividends upon reentry at the firm.

Reintegrating to Home Office

One disadvantage of being seconded is the potential difficult reintegration upon the conclusion of the secondment. While the risk of reintegration difficulty is greater the longer the secondment, the attorney and the partners at the home office must recognize that neither the attorney nor the home office will be the same as prior to the secondment. However, the risk can be mitigated by early communication and close attention by the home-office partners.

Firm Perspective

Providing Stronger Counseling

Attorneys with secondment experiences posses a knowledge base that their peers usually do not. They understand the firm’s clients more deeply and the global legal market more broadly. On that basis, a secondment experience accelerates the attorney’s counseling skills.

Strengthening Client Relationships

A corporate secondment is often a placement at an important firm client, with the intent of maintaining the long-term relationship. Some secondments are established as long-term programs whereby the firm agrees to send the client an attorney resource indefinitely, often rotating a different attorney every six months or one year. These programs, which insert attorneys with familiarity of the business gained through outside counsel roles into corporate legal departments, can also be very helpful to clients as they manage headcount pressure. Long-term secondment programs maintain the firm’s presence at the client and generally lead to continued business opportunities for the firm.

Integrating Firm’s Global Offices

An international secondment by its very nature serves as a bridge between two of the firm’s offices. If the firm maintains an international secondment program, whereby every year a new attorney is placed in a particular international office, over time the distance between the firm’s offices will shorten. The ultimate goal of all global law firms is to provide client service that is blind to jurisdictions and practice groups and international secondments help firms get closer to achieving such goal.

Committing Significant Financial Outlays

Secondments require significant firm financial commitments. In the case of a corporate secondment, the firm may provide the attorney resource to the client at a discounted rate, including in some instances for free. In the case of an international secondment, the firm will typically cover the seconded attorney’s relocation package (including a periodic housing allowance and cost of living adjustment), any tax exposure, and home-visit expenses. Nevertheless, the long-term benefits the firm reaps from an attorney who has been seconded outweigh such short-term expenses.

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