Using a Legal Secondment to Sharpen Your Skills and Advance Your Career
You may have heard the term “secondment” and wondered, “exactly what is a secondment and why should I consider doing one?” Good questions! A secondment is an arrangement where a law firm lawyer joins a client’s in-house legal team for a defined period of time. The secondee may be brought in to handle a specific project, to temporarily support the in-house legal team, or simply to strengthen the ties between the client and the law firm where the attorney works.
Historically, attorneys usually were seconded early in their careers to gain experience and develop new legal skills while working inside a client’s organization. More recently, however, seasoned associates have chosen to do secondments as they recognize that a secondment allows even experienced attorneys to develop their skills within a new context and become familiar with developments within the client’s industry. Working inside a client’s organization also provides useful insight into what it’s like to be a law firm client and helps attorneys understand their client’s problems from a business—and not simply a legal—perspective. In addition, attorneys recognize that sustained time devoted to one client helps them develop close bonds with the client and truly learn the details of their business, all of which may make the secondee one of the client’s go-to attorneys. As senior associates or counsel approach partnership, this can result in increased responsibility and a growing book of business which only increases the likelihood of making partner. In some cases, a secondment may trigger an interest to move to an in-house position or, conversely, confirm a decision to continue with a law firm practice.
A secondment not only benefits the attorney but helps the client as well. Leanly staffed in-house teams may have difficulty handling unanticipated spikes in work. During an extraordinarily busy time, a secondment provides the organization with the valuable assistance of a skilled lawyer who is familiar with their work and can provide immediate support. And because secondments are billed to the client as a flat fee, the client gets this help without the concern over billed hourly costs. Once the secondment ends, the client continues to reap the benefits of the secondment with law firm counsel who are intimately familiar with their legal issues and business processes. As one attorney told us, following his secondment, he had a deeper understanding of how his legal advice would affect his client’s business and thus was a better and more effective counselor to his client.
Our firm, Perkins Coie, recognizes that both the firm and our attorneys benefit from secondments and supports attorneys who want to be seconded to a client. Dozens of Perkins Coie attorneys have done secondments over the past few years, many with our firm’s major tech clients like Microsoft, Dropbox, and Facebook. Some attorneys have enjoyed their secondments so much that they have done multiple secondments with the same or different clients.
One attorney who worked with Dropbox described the secondment as a “pivotal experience” in her early years with the firm: Not only was the experience valuable to her professional development, but she was proud that the Perkins Coie partners trusted her enough to recommend her for the secondment. Although the pandemic turned her secondment into a remote experience, it was still a resounding success that helped her acquire a more complete understanding of her client’s needs and culture. Because of her secondment, she now better understands who needs to be involved in decision-making within the company and what steps need to be taken to get the best results.
Another attorney who did several secondments reported that his secondments taught him to “assess risk in a business context” so he was better able to understand his clients’ needs. During his secondments, he realized just how busy the in-house attorneys were, which led him to be even more concise when providing legal opinions. Like most attorneys who went on secondments, this associate developed deeper and closer relationships with the in-house attorneys, which naturally led to a sustained pipeline of work when he returned to the firm.
How do secondments happen? Within Perkins Coie, some attorneys have prompted their secondment by expressing an interest in working in-house for a time; in other cases, the client has affirmatively sought a Perkins Coie attorney to join their team through a secondment. After their secondments, our attorneys return to the firm as more skilled and more well-rounded lawyers. In the instances where attorneys decide to move into a permanent in-house position with a client, the firm also benefits from even closer connections with that client.
Secondments provide attorneys with experiences they usually cannot gain from working within a law firm. Doing a secondment provides a low-risk opportunity to improve your legal skills while testing out an in-house position. As you consider and interview with various firms, you should think about secondments and ask the firm’s attorneys about the opportunities for secondments at their firm.