Second nature

A secondment can provide trainees with a wealth of experience. But is it better to spend time with a client’s in-house team or at a firm’s international office? asks Laura Manning

The decision to undertake a secondment has traditionally been optional. But with several top law firms boosting the number of opportunities they offer, should budding lawyers now look at secondments as an essential element of their training? And which is the most valuable – a client or overseas secondment?

A survey by Lawyer 2B shows that 95 per cent of the UK’s top 20 law firms offer formal secondment opportunities, with all 95 per cent offering client opportunities, while 90 per cent offer a stint abroad (see table).

The majority of these firms encourage their trainees to complete a 1secondment as part of their training contract. “Secondments provide trainees with the opportunity to develop new contacts, experience a new environment and new ways of doing things, and be given more responsibility than they would be in London,” says a spokesperson from Linklaters’ trainee developement team. “Not only are there business demands for them to do so from both clients and the international offices, it is also hugely beneficial for them personally.”

Client secondments

 

The value of undertaking a client secondment depends largely on the business need, with some quarters saying they are no more than a type of cheap labour.

Law firms admit that one of the advantages of a client secondment is that it develops the firm’s relationship with that client, and in the future may gain the firm a place on the company’s legal panel.

“The secondments help to build up and strengthen our relationship with our clients, and will hopefully lead to further work with them,” admits DLA Piper graduate recruitment officer Puneet Tahim. “It offers trainees the opportunity to gain an insight into our clients’ industries, businesses and working styles.”

A client secondment is arguably more beneficial than a stint in a firm’s overseas office, as it provides a unique opportunity not only to gain invaluable skills and commercial awareness, but also to experience life as an in-house lawyer – a thoroughly different experience to working as a private practice lawyer.

Following an increase in the popularity of training in-house in the last few years, more companies are willing to take on trainees for secondments, and in return an in-house trainee can spend time in private practice.

According to the survey, client secondments now span all sorts of organisations, including Barclays Capital, BSkyB, BP, Goldman Sachs, IBM, John Lewis, Manchester United and Westfield Group.

Pinsent Masons trainee Alexandra Patrick, who has swapped her third seat with an in-house trainee from retailer Mamas & Papas, says the main advantage for her is being exposed to broader areas of law.

“An in-house legal team offers the opportunity to be involved in multiple legal disciplines with no two days being the same,” she enthuses. “We receive many ad hoc enquiries from various members of the business on a day-to-day basis and they usually involve different areas of law which makes my working day very interesting.” (See profile).

A few trainees have had less positive experiences on their secondments. One City firm third-seat trainee, for example, describes her experience on secondment as “disappointing”, due to a substantial drop in responsibility.

“I’ve been placed with one of my firm’s largest clients and while the exposure to the client’s business has been positive, I’ve been allocated very little quality legal work,” she says. “While the work-life balance is much better in-house, trainees should be aware that the work will likely be of a lower quality than private practice and more administrative in nature. In some cases my impression is that a trainee’s sole purpose on secondment is to maintain the relationship with the client.”

There is also a risk of varying workloads and decreasing levels of responsibility on secondment. An international law firm trainee in his fourth seat says: “I have friends who had brilliant experiences on secondment, with great exposure to challenging work, but I spent my days filling out forms. Going on secondment is a bit of a gamble, as it depends on the business needs, which of course are constantly changing.” But with the amount of benefits advocated by law firms, it may be a gamble worth taking.  

Overseas secondments

 

Overseas secondments have traditionally been the battleground for firms seeking to hire the best. Certainly, the opportunity to spend six months in Hong Kong, New York or Paris might swing the pendulum in a firm’s favour.

In the past some law firms have admitted to being cautious about guaranteeing international secondments, fearing that students will see it as a glorified holiday.

Jones Day, which offers trainees a unique non-seat training contract in which they work across a wide range of practice areas simultaneousy, introduced a secondment to Dubai last year, although it was offered only on an ad hoc basis.

“When people ask at interview about secondments abroad, we spend a lot of time educating them about the realities of training to become an English lawyer, and asking them to consider what they’re really looking for in an overseas secondment,” says Jones Day trainee recruitment and development manager Diana Spoudeas. “Is it just an opportunity for travel abroad or will it contribute to their training or our business needs?”

Overseas secondments are immensely popular. Lawyer 2B’s Big Student Survey 2011 in association with BPP Law School reveals that almost 70 per cent of students see a seat abroad as a key attraction when applying for a training contract.

According to the law firms that responded to the survey, there are a number of benefits with this type of secondment – trainees gain a greater understanding of the firm’s international network and the international nature of the work they do, as well as developing important relationships with clients and colleagues in other offices. Also, working in a smaller team can mean greater responsibility and breadth of work.

“[Simmons & Simmons’] London office is the biggest, and internationally trainees can be working in a different environment,” says graduate recruitment manager Anna King. “At times, trainees in other international offices may be involved in a mix of work across different departments.”

But there are also potential disadvantages, such as a drop in supervision or different weekly working hours.

Around 50 per cent of the top 20 law firms say that trainees often fear missing valuable face time within the office and the decrease of networking opportunities with key members of the firm, especially around the qualification period. But law firms insist that communication with the trainees on seats abroad continues throughout the secondment.

Hogan Lovells encourages trainees to do extra forward-planning if their secondment falls over the qualification interview period, while CMS Cameron McKenna and Eversheds recommend that trainees complete a secondment in their second or third seats only.

Taking a secondment of either kind can be a risk, as its value depends on which hand you get dealt. But with a little research and proactive thinking, the experience can be invaluable and put you in good stead for gaining a newly qualified position.  

PROFILE

Name:Alexandra Patrick

Firm:Pinsent Masons

Seconded to: Mamas & Papas

Why did you decide to go on secondment to Mamas & Papas? I’ve always been eager to work in an in-house environment to see the differences with private practice.

How many lawyers are in the legal department you are seconded to? There are two qualified lawyers and one legal executive. I’m the only trainee in the department.

What does your typical day involve? I’ve quickly learned that there’s no such thing as a typical day at Mamas & Papas. However, my main role is to concentrate on international franchise matters. My typical responsibilities include liaising with international franchise partners based on advice we’ve been given by overseas counsel. I’m also involved in reviewing the main franchise agreements to ensure they reflect the particular legal requirements for each country where Mamas & Papas is engaging in franchise opportunities. I’ve also had the opportunity to attend several meetings and conference calls with international franchise partners, and I’ve been involved in various intellectual property matters, including trademark issues and domain names. On a daily basis, I’m often engaged in conducting contract reviews or examining terms and conditions received from new suppliers and manufacturers.

What has been the highlight of the secondment? I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working on the international franchise matters as this is an entirely different discipline and an area of law I’ve not been exposed to previously. This is a very exciting area of law and a rapidly expanding area at Mamas & Papas at the moment. I’ve found it extremely interesting to work with other members of the business rather than purely the legal department, as this has given me a better idea as to how different roles fit together in order to produce an end result.

Is there anything you wish you had known before choosing to go on secondment? Working in a smaller team at Mamas & Papas has given me the opportunity to learn quickly and I’m easily able to ask questions to the team members on any areas where I’m inexperienced. As such, I don’t think there is anything I would have benefited from in preparation for my secondment.

Do you think there is a particular seat during which it is most beneficial to go on secondment? I would think the second or third seat would be the best. In this way, you have the necessary experience from the first seat of working in a legal environment as well as the accompanying drafting and reviewing skills. I’m in my third seat and believe this is perfect timing as I have more confidence in my ability and dealing with legal documents.

And a seat you believe would be less beneficial? I think the first seat would be least beneficial as you would have a limited knowledge base of different legal areas. Also, a trainee would be inexperienced in drafting emails and dealing with general legal matters. Confidence increases dramatically moving from your first seat, so secondment would be more valuable further into a training contract.

Why did you decide to go on client secondment rather than an overseas secondment? I thought it would be very useful to work within a client’s business to witness the running of a large company on a day-today basis. I hoped this would provide me with a better appreciation of clients’ expectations and concerns when returning to Pinsents, so I’ll have a more commercial focus when providing legal advice in the future.

How has the secondment added to your training contract experience? It has added invaluable experience to my training contract. It has been very interesting to be exposed to a different working environment and I’ve benefited from learning a new skills set. I would hope that these skills will be transferable once I return to Pinsents for my fourth seat.      

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