First, if you’re wondering what a secondment is, it’s a temporary arrangement in which you go and work on-site, most often for a client but sometimes for a partnered firm. I not only was fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend a three-month secondment with a law firm in Freiburg, Germany (you can read more about my experiences), made possible by our global business practice, but also was asked to second my services to an international technology cooperative based in Columbus, Ohio, utilizing my work in data privacy and security.
Uncommon Insight into Client Operations
Secondments create a situation in which an associate can work with a single client on a long-term project with a set schedule. For example, my current secondment has me on-site two or three days a week.
For many associates in a traditional work setting, regardless of the practice area, face-to-face interaction with any client isn’t guaranteed. A secondment presents the opportunity to work with not only the in-house legal department but also a client’s entire business and leadership team, which can provide insight into the client that even relationship partners are lacking.
This type of interaction is a fantastic opportunity for the associate to strengthen existing relationships among herself, her firm, and the client. As an attorney on secondment, you might invite the client’s in-house counsel to firm events—as guests or as speakers—and connect them with other firm members, firm initiatives, or committees.
New Perspectives on Learning and Critical Relationship Skills
Secondments also provide learning opportunities for young lawyers that law firms can’t provide directly.
You’re obviously learning about a different business environment, understanding the business’s workflow and decision-making processes and timelines, but you’ll also improve your communication skills with in-house lawyers and decision makers. For example, my secondments taught me a great deal about concise communication because I could see firsthand what mattered to my clients/colleagues the most. This greater understanding of relationship dynamics also allowed me to prioritize my time more effectively in order to concentrate on the issues most important to the client.
And my perspective on business pressures and corporate politics has been affected in a very real way that has had a practical effect on the way I give legal advice. This type of understanding is not something that law schools teach you, but it is central to our roles as business advisers.
Any professional-development plan certainly should include soft skills and people skills, and working in an in-house legal department gives associates unique opportunities that more traditional legal work does not. Along with the diversity it adds to your routine, a secondment forces you to talk with business and management professionals so that you can effectively represent their interests and advocate for their needs. Working directly with the client and participating in the daily running of that business will arm you with experience that your peers simply can’t replicate, and the leadership at your firm will understand and appreciate it.
Guaranteed Billable Hours
Not all of the benefits of a secondment are qualitative, though. Perhaps the most important short-term benefit of a secondment is that almost every hour of your secondment is billable time because there will be no wasted time. It’s comforting to know that you will be able to rely on a baseline of at least X hours at the end of the month, which is a level of stability that most associates crave. In fact, that baseline may be more than associates might otherwise log in a given month anyway.
Of course, balancing your secondment with your regular responsibilities will be stressful. You will have to schedule meetings and other commitments around it, and communicate with your colleagues at the firm and at the company to set reasonable expectations and make everyone aware of your schedule. But you have to schedule around other meetings and commitments anyway. Your inbox will overflow here and there, but you can manage. Your inbox was going to blow up anyway, and you were probably already going to email people back after business hours, no matter at which office you spent your day.
Anything that could happen at your firm’s office can happen while you’re on secondment. You’ll still have to balance caseloads and multiple clients. You’ll still have to respond to too many emails. You’ll still have to build relationships and network.
But during your secondment, you’ll be building expertise, developing people skills, earning trust, and establishing a unique network with both breadth and depth. You’ll have reliable billable hours; and if you excel and the client has an ongoing need, the secondment might be extended or could lead to additional work as outside counsel with an expanded scope. And now that you have the deepest relationships and built-in credibility, guess who will run point on those projects now? As an associate with partnership aspirations, that’s an invaluable position to be in.
While secondments have traditionally been much more common in Europe, they are growing in popularity in the United States, and proposing or accepting a secondment has more than enough benefits to outweigh your fears of being out of the office. So, don’t miss out on the opportunity to advance your career by working directly with a client, gaining insight into the client’s business, and improving your relationship and communication skills, all while boosting those billables.
Katja Garvey is an associate with Kegler Brown Hill + Ritter in Columbus, Ohio.