updated on 16 April 2019
A client secondment is a valuable opportunity to spend time working closely with a client in its in-house legal team; taking on greater responsibility, developing an understanding of the client’s business and building strong relationships that will have long-term benefits well after you qualify as a solicitor.
Secondments to clients' in-house legal teams are a common way for commercial law firms to develop their trainees' skills in preparation for qualified life and strengthen client relationships. "As well as encouraging their development as independent legal advisers, a secondment also gives trainees an insight into what it is like to be in the client's shoes," explains Becket McGrath, partner in Cooley’s antitrust & competition practice. "This can be very useful when the trainee returns to the office," he continues. "As a firm, we benefit from the new skills that trainees learn on secondment, as well as deeper relationships with clients' legal teams. The clients benefit from having access to additional keen, well-trained legal resources on the spot and also benefit on a longer-term basis from our greater understanding of their business."
The testimonies in this article show that going on secondment to a client, either as a trainee or associate, can provide immediate and long-term career advantages. Readers working toward careers in commercial law should certainly check out the potential secondment opportunities available at the firms to which they intend to apply for training contracts. Every partner, associate and recruiter we spoke to agrees on the importance of secondments. "A secondment is one of the most valuable things that a trainee can do," says David Allen, partner at Baker McKenzie. "It's a given that anyone who goes on secondment quickly picks up an understanding of the client's business, but what's more important are the personal relationships that the trainee will develop with a whole range of stakeholders within the client," he continues. "These are highly valuable once the trainee qualifies and continues to do work for the client on the firm's behalf."
Sarah Warnes, trainee recruitment and development manager at Cooley, says: "In terms of the trainees' development, they gain huge confidence from adapting to another working environment, building professional relationships on their own terms and really taking on a different level of responsibility. They increase their ability to make their own decisions on how a matter progresses and can really start putting into practise all the things they've learned through the training they've had to that point."
The most immediate benefit for a trainee going on client secondment is the opportunity to experience a higher level of responsibility than during an internal seat. "You tend to have a greater degree of autonomy on secondment and have to make judgement calls which have broader - and real - implications on the business," says Tom Ohta, a senior lawyer at BT who went on secondment to the in-house legal team of a software licensing company during the course of his training contract at a well-known private practice commercial firm. "This can be quite nerve-racking at first," he continues, "but it was great to have that exposure during my training and your confidence grows with experience. Having people look to you for advice from within the business helps to build up your self-confidence and cements your credentials as a valuable team member."
In turn, increased responsibility means that seconded trainees also get the chance to take on a range of high-quality work, as Andy Pratley, a senior associate at Shoosmiths, experienced during his secondment as a trainee to the Home Retail Group, which is comprised of the well-known retailers Argos, Homebase and Habitat. "I was exposed to a range of commercial work, including the reviewing of contracts, litigation and even preparing training within the business for in-house lawyers and non-lawyers," he explains. "However, a real highlight was advising the Home Retail Group during the months preceding London 2012 on the stringent rules that define what companies can and cannot do with their marketing and product sales in relation to the Olympics, plus agreeing contracts with some of the athletes competing in the Games as well. I'm really into my sport, so it was great to be part of that."
This exposure to frontline work and real-life commercial matters is a valuable part of many trainees' development as they progress toward qualification. Leo Spicer-Phelps, associate at Cooley, certainly found this to be the case during his secondment to a well-known online retailer for the second seat of his training contract. "I believe that one of the biggest challenges a trainee faces is making the transition from learning academic principles while studying to actually applying that knowledge in a practical context," he explains. "The greater agency that is given to you while on secondment means that it can be an ideal opportunity for a trainee to make that transition. For example, I operated as the primary legal point of contact for a number of business teams; this responsibility and knowing that I was able to give accurate, tailored advice gave me far greater confidence in my practical legal ability."
Going on secondment usually guarantees exposure to a variety of work because in-house legal teams typically handle all the general legal matters that arise in the course of their companies' activities. Isabel Carty, an associate at Baker McKenzie who was seconded as a trainee to a UK-based mining organisation, worked mainly with the in-house treasury team throughout her time with the company, but she was still exposed to a variety of valuable legal experience. "I did quite a lot of work on matters such as bond issues, which involved liaising with external counsel, while internally I also worked on a lot of inter-group transactions, including inter-group funding, inter-group loans and profit distributions," she explains. "There were also a lot of general company secretarial matters associated with these transactions, such as reviewing board notes, which I was responsible for. Even though my treasury work took up the majority of my time with the company, I also did bits and pieces on disposals and sales contracts, plus day-to-day queries - at one point I even reviewed the contract for the venue of the company's Christmas party!"
Finally, it's worth pointing out that secondments can prove key in building up the long-term confidence to work with and advise clients effectively, as Isabel illustrates: "These experiences also help to really humanise the clients. A trainee might be terrified by the idea of 'the client', but when you go on secondment and work alongside them, it becomes a lot less intimidating; you're just working with other lawyers and non-lawyers. It's especially helpful to experience working with people who aren't lawyers, because you can get a feel for the client's working environment and better understand its business."
While the advantages of increased responsibility and experiencing a variety of high-value work are clear, the most valuable benefit of client secondments is a longer term one; they allow trainees to build strong client relationships that both increase their worth to their firms and ensure repeat work throughout their careers. "Client relationships are often about personal relationships with individual lawyers, so the more that we can do to build those relationships, the better outcomes we will be able to achieve for the client," explains David. "When our trainees qualify and become more senior, we want them to have strong enough relationships with clients that those clients keep coming back because they enjoy working with them. Starting to build those relationships as a trainee on secondment is the perfect foundation for life as an associate."
Becket also highlights the importance of building strong relationships with clients: "If a client has already worked closely with an individual lawyer during a successful secondment, they can establish a working rapport more rapidly on future transactions and communicate more effectively with each other. The ex-secondee already understands how the company communicates - which cuts down on misunderstandings - and will know what is expected of external advisers."
Becket's last point is well worth noting; the relationships established on secondment can also help to improve the quality of advice that a solicitor provides, which may give that solicitor a competitive edge over other external counsel in future. Isabel agrees: "One of the most interesting things about going on secondment is seeing the reactions of in-house counsel and other non-lawyers to the advice they receive from external counsel - whether your own firm or another firm. Often times, the client might feel that the advice is too long and convoluted, or that it doesn't address the questions that the client really wanted answered. Going on secondment therefore definitely helps you to understand what the client wants when it seeks the advice of external counsel, which might vary from individual to individual. You certainly appreciate that there can be differences between your perceptions of what makes for good legal advice and the perceptions of the client." Recalling his own experiences, Andy concurs: "Two clients might be facing near-identical scenarios, but completely different advice might be appropriate for each, depending on their objectives."
Going on secondment therefore definitely helps you to understand what the client wants when it seeks the advice of external counsel, which might vary from individual to individual
Perhaps the most important point to reiterate, though, is the personal nature of so many lawyer/client relationships. This means that a successful secondee has an opportunity to add real value to their role at their firm. One illustration of this is the experience of Tom Gorrard-Smith, a former associate at Clyde & Co (currently in-house corporate counsel at Amazon) who, as a trainee, went on secondment to the legal team at Willis, the global insurance broker. "I was only the second person at the firm to go on secondment to Willis at the time and I still have a very good relationship with the company now, three years on," he explains. "Some of the people I got to know on secondment have since moved to other offices overseas - I was in Singapore recently and caught up with one of the guys who is now part of the Willis legal team there. I also went with another former Willis colleague to a recent Arsenal game, so the client exposure I had has proven to be brilliant."
Secondments have multiple benefits for trainees, their firms and the clients involved. "They're great not only for the secondee's personal development, but also for the firm in helping to create and maintain links with clients, particularly if the secondee does a good job," says Tom. "Secondments can also be of real value to clients who have a short-term requirement for a competent and qualified person to deal with a specific project where the secondee has relevant expertise."
As a result, secondment opportunities are widespread at many commercial firms, though not every trainee in each intake will take the opportunity. "The number of our trainees that go on secondment varies according to client need," explains David. "As well as a number of rolling secondments to clients such as Google and Unilever, these opportunities also become available on an ad-hoc basis and are based on factors for the client like capacity gluts. Typically, we send trainees to do a variety of work including M&A, banking, commercial and regulatory work. On average, 37% of trainees in each intake will go on a client secondment." Becket agrees that making as many secondment opportunities available as possible is positive for all concerned. "Our clients really value our seconded trainees," he says. "As a result, we have a number of trainees out on secondment at any one time. This increases the chances that a trainee will be able to go on a client secondment at some point during their training contract."
The immediate and longer-term benefits explored above should make client secondments part of the research criteria for any commercial training contract application, while discussing such opportunities could also form the basis for a fruitful conversation at interview. "I think if you want to be a successful commercial lawyer," considers Sarah, "then opting to do a secondment - if the opportunity exists - would be a natural step."
A useful list for checking out which firms offer opportunities to (i) see the law from the clients’ point of view, and (ii) explore how firms’ businesses work.