Second to none

In-house training contracts are virtually non-existent but client secondments offer an invaluable experience for anyone lucky enough to get one. Joanne OConnor provides the lowdown.

If you are itching to cut your legal teeth in-house, the picture is not pretty: it is no secret that in-house legal teams have had a tough time of late.

Across industry sectors, legal departments have been hit by a wave

of redundancies and cost-cutting measures. The technology, media and telecoms (TMT) industry has been particularly hard hit, with the general counsel of Primus Telecommunications, mmo2, Cable & Wireless and HMV Group all getting the shove in 2003. Reuters which is an accredited training contract provider last year announced a redundancy programme in which 3,000 staff, including general counsel Stephen Mitchell, lost their jobs.

No surprises, then, that it is now even harder for would-be lawyers to win in-house training contracts. Most in-house legal teams are tiny compared with private practice law firms in the City, and many outsource the bulk of their legal work. Paul Lister, who heads the seven-lawyer team at Associated British Foods, says the size of the group precludes him from taking on trainees. To be honest, we wouldnt be able to offer the breadth trainees need, he says. Our most junior lawyer is five years post-qualification. Were so small that people need to be able to stand on their own two feet.

While 30 of the FTSE 100 companies are Law Society accredited training providers (see box), only a handful actually offer training contracts. None of those contacted by Lawyer 2B have a formal, structured recruitment process for trainees. For the most part, selection happens on an ad hoc basis, and most in-house trainees were already employees, rather than securing a contract during legal education. A source at one in-house legal team admitted: We get a lot of CVs, but they wouldnt get a look-in unless they already knew somebody.

However, for those already working within corporates, the odds of winning a training contract with an in-house team are far better. Barclays, BAE Systems, AstraZeneca, Friends Provident, HSBC and Lloyds TSB all offered training contracts to existing employees. At AstraZeneca, the bulk of recruits have between two and three years post-qualification experience. But Ian Storey, a training consultant with AstraZeneca, says: Weve home-grown a couple of trainees over the past few years. It is a similar story at Friends Provident. Joanna Hands, head of legal, explained: Occasionally we have a need to develop staff internally. As part of this we offer staff the opportunity to qualify as a solicitor. One lucky staff member was working as a paralegal and secretary in the legal department, and is now qualifying as a lawyer.

Client secondment

But if you cannot wait until qualification to make the move in-house and training contracts are nowhere to be seen, do not despair. Most City firms and many in the regions offer client secondments to trainees.

Herbert Smith offers seven secondments to clients, which include BAA Systems, BSkyB, Cable & Wireless, Coca-Cola and IBM. At Clifford Chance, trainees can jet off as far afield as Toulouse on secondment with Airbus, and as close to home as the Financial Services Authority and the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company. Lovells also has a structured secondment programme, offering trainees a choice of 10 clients, including 3i, Esso and British American Tobacco.

Alison Beardsley, recruitment partner at Allen & Overy (A&O), believes client secondment gives trainees a rare insight into the needs of a client. Or to paraphrase Atticus Finch: You never really understand a client until you consider things from his point of view until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. They understand first-hand the business needs of clients and the speed of response needed, says Beardsley. Given the cost of legal advice, sitting next to clients close to the chequebook, as Beardsley puts it also makes trainees more sensitive to clients financial needs.

Secondments help law firms cement relationships with clients. And there seems to be some wisdom in this thinking all the trainees Lawyer 2B spoke to had maintained contact with their in-house colleagues. And since they do not have to pay secondees, the benefits to clients are obvious. They get a free body around the office, tap into the firms know-how and get access to a whole network of junior staff, says Beardsley.

Client secondments are famously oversubscribed and competition can be fierce. Firms select secondees based on their trainees longer-term career interests, how the secondments will complement their training, and their maturity and competence. Dina Albagli, a training partner with Herbert Smith, adds: And, of course, were looking for good ambassadors for the firm.

It is a clich窠but for trainees, client secondment is a challenging but also highly rewarding experience. Natalie McCarthy, a litigator at Herbert Smith, did six months with Coca-Cola. She says the ability to work independently and to manage your own workload are essential qualities for the in-house trainee.

Helen Evans from A&O did a six-month secondment with tourism client TUI Northern Europe. I was left to get on with things more I had more day-to-day control over my work than I did at Allen & Overy, she says.

McCarthy adds: It was daunting at first, but gave me a level of confidence.

But for some trainees, the adjustment to life outside the firm can be tough. When removed from their law firm peers, trainees can find secondment socially isolating, no matter how warm and welcoming the in-house team. One trainee described how the bulk of his colleagues at one FTSE 100 legal department were over the age of 40. Culturally, there are other differences, such as the hours. Most in-house lawyers are out of the office by 7pm, which is virtually unheard of in many City firms. And many trainees noted the less competitive atmosphere of the in-house legal departments.

Nevertheless, working in-house can help broaden trainees perspectives. Its easy to get caught up in the City. Secondment showed me how the other half live and helped me to understand in-house lawyers and their battles, says Evans. But I went back to the City every Friday for drinks with the trainees, admitted one.

Client secondments can also give trainees at corporate or finance heavyweights valuable litigation experience. A&O, Clifford Chance and Herbert Smith all offer secondments to human rights charity Liberty, where trainees run their own human rights caseloads. And Paul Chaplin, a lawyer at Lovells, admits: I learned more about litigation in my first month at John Lewis than in six months at Lovells.

If in-house work appeals to you, contact the human resources departments of law firms and find out what secondments are available.

Case study: Natalie McCarthy, Herbert Smith

In March 2003, Natalie McCarthy swapped Herbert Smiths Liverpool Street offices for an in-house secondment with Coca-Cola in Hammersmith. And I live in East London, she adds grudgingly.

Having already set her heart on litigation, McCarthy decided on a change of scenery. I wanted to get an idea of how being an in-house lawyer works, she says.

The six-month seat focused on EU competition law: advising on distribution agreements and on contentious matters before the European Commission. As part of a five-lawyer team, McCarthy was really thrown in at the deep end. People just phone you up and expect you to know what youre talking about straight away, she says.

Of course, the social life of a five-person legal department struggled to compete with the veritable buffet of events at Herbert Smith. Everyone was very friendly, but its just not the same, and theres no getting around that, says McCarthy. But to compensate, Coca-Cola flowed freely from the taps, vast fridges were stocked full of soft drinks and there were relaxation areas on every floor, complete with plasma screens and sofas not something you are likely to find in any City law firm.

For McCarthy, who qualified into general litigation in September 2003, the biggest difference between life in-house and in private practice was the level of responsibility. As part of the five-lawyer team at Coca-Cola what I said went, she says.

It was nerve-wracking at first, but by the end of the six months I felt like a solicitor. It taught me to believe in what I say, she adds.

Case study: Paul Chaplin, Lovells

It was the promise of contentious experience that lured Lovells litigator Paul Chaplin to retail giant John Lewis for his third training seat.

As part of John Lewiss six-lawyer team, Chaplin handled between 30 and 40 small product liability claims. Under the supervision of the head of legal, Chaplin did his own advocacy on interim applications and summary judgments and negotiations. He also drafted agreements with the publisher of major childrens books on the release of the latest novel.

While there were no perks or shopper discounts for Chaplin (secondees remain in the employ of their firms), benefits came in other ways. It was refreshing not to have to bill every second. I could just get on with the job, says Chaplin.

Shorter hours were another plus: Chaplin could leave at 5.30pm some days. A 7pm finish was considered pretty late by in-house standards, he says.

But while he enjoyed his time at John Lewis, Chaplin missed the City. I learnt so much and enjoyed the autonomy, but I like the professionalism and the support at Lovells. I like the slickness of the City and the sharpness of the people. It keeps you on your toes, he says.

But if Chaplin was not wholly converted to in-house life, John Lewis has won itself a loyal customer. I was impressed with how well they treat their customers and I was acting against them, he says.