As part of March’s theme of ‘Friends on the Outside’, we spoke to our community about secondments. Because how better to utilise those friends on the outside than through secondments?

Secondments often deliver huge value to all involved – the secondee, in-house team and law firm. For instance, in our recent article on maximising the relationship between law firms and General Counsel, secondments were raised as a key factor in developing this relationship.

At any one time hundreds of solicitors around the UK (and not to mention the wider world) are on secondment with a client. However, we believe that more can be done to support both those going on secondments, and those hosting secondees.

We spoke to our community about secondments – the good, bad and surprising – and here were five things that they thought.

1. The commercial awareness

Secondments are one of the best ways for private practice lawyers to increase their commercial awareness. Through hands-on experience, secondments provide a chance to really learn about businesses, how they work and what they need.

From the exposure to different sectors of the economy to gaining the invaluable skill of providing commercially-focused advice. Commercial awareness is one of the key benefits of secondments according to our community. And being commercially aware can lead to better lawyering.

You learn how to provide commercial advice that works for the GC and product (rather than covering every possible eventuality and reads like it was written by someone billing for every minute).

2. The value lies in understanding

General commercial awareness is incredibly useful for the secondee, however the value for both client and firm lies in a more specific awareness – that of a client’s business.

You could be mistaken thinking the value of these experiences lies heavily with the law firm and their secondees. There’s no doubting that secondments lead to better relationships with clients for law firms.

Secondments give an almost insider perspective for the law firm and secondee. Even sitting in on team meetings allow for a better understanding of the business; from how they communicate, to strategic decisions. Secondments provide a ‘closeness with the client’ that allows you to predict future needs more easily.

How much respect there was from the Client. You are not one in a sea of many – you are now a rarity and highly respected…

Nevertheless, the in-house team also benefits from hosting secondees. And the value for in-house teams doesn’t stop when the secondee goes back to their firm; indeed, the client continues to benefit from an adviser with that ‘insider perspective’. This perspective brings a better understanding of the business and its needs.

And that’s where the real value lies for all – a law firm with an in-depth understanding of their client’s business, strategy, commercial drivers and context.

3. What is it like being in-house?

For private practice lawyers, the in-house team can be mystifying. What do you mean they don’t bill for their hours? How do they work without a vast network of specialised lawyers? What does the General Counsel even do?

Being client side demystifies the in-house role and teams. For instance, lawyers can see the breadth of work in-house teams do rather than simply working on individual projects. There’s no better way to learn how in-house teams work than being part of one. Secondments offer a clarity on how the team functions and can allow for increased empathy when dealing with clients.

And as we know, understanding is the key to working with in-house teams. So taking time to understand the challenges and dynamics of the in-house world not only helps lawyers to develop personally, but also the relationship with the law firm.

One theme highlighted by our community was how secondments can open the door to alternative careers in law. Many believe secondments can lead to lawyers changing paths to follow an in-house career. Getting to explore the in-house world can reveal opportunities or paths which were previously overlooked. Secondments are a great chance to show younger lawyers a different version of what a career in law can look like.

4. Secondments can be tough

The value of secondments is unparalleled. Yet, from conversations with the community, it is clear that secondments can be tough. For all involved, there are aspects to secondment experience which require further support or reframing.

Here are some key takeaways on the this from the community:

  • ‘By the time you settle in, you have to move on.’
  • ‘[It surprised me] How negatively secondments are viewed in practice – my experience was that it is viewed as less desirable and a way to keep underperforming associates busy which is not true.’
  • Took a long time for them [secondee] to become productive and [it’s] clear that short secondments don’t work unless you have a deep relationship with the law firm and the individual being seconded.’
  • ‘As a trainee, being more isolated from supervision. As a virtual secondee during COVID lockdown, general isolation and logistical difficulties being onboarded into a new environment.’
  • ‘Supervision time was greater than an in-house trainee needed to take the private practice out of the secondee.’

It’s clear that, despite the value, secondments are far from a perfect experience. Whether it’s the length of secondments, the perception in private practice or added management time – there is definitely room for improvement.

5. Preparing for secondees

How can you improve secondments though? More support is needed for the experience to achieve its full potential. But how do you prepare for a secondment to make it a truly valuable experience?

Firstly, make the secondee feel like an integral part of the team. No matter how short their secondment. Take time to immerse them in the client side – whether that’s inviting them to company events or sharing interesting webinars.

I had an absolutely fantastic time as a secondee, but I ended up in a couple of difficult situations which could perhaps have been avoided with some better expectation setting on all sides. I got pulled in to help on a small deal which was unrelated to the main project I had been seconded to work on, and on which, it transpired, another team from my law firm was acting on the other side. I was also asked to help keep an eye on law firm spend (with other firms) on the main project. Arguably I should have put my hand up and asked for guidance, but I was keen to please my host and it all seemed of a piece with their expectations and what other secondees were doing.

The value of secondments is unmistakable. From strengthening relationships between clients and law firms, to providing invaluable experience for junior lawyers. However, it is clear that there is work to be done to improve the secondment experience and reposition the views surrounding them.

What do you think about secondments? Do you think more needs to get the most out of secondments? Share your thoughts with us over on Twitter at @CraftyCounselHQ