Secondments: alluring, but are they worth it?

The larger law firms use secondments to sell the City lawyer lifestyle – “develop a global mind-set with our truly international network”. Even client secondments are sold as unique opportunities to boost business skills. Here is an FAQ guide to the inescapable lure of secondments, gleaned from conversations with associates and partners at various law firms.

travel, holiday, secondments

Should I choose a firm based on the secondments they offer?

Absolutely not – even if there are tons of glitzy secondment opportunities you will only be able to do one of them, which means you will get the same ‘international’ experience (in terms of secondments) at a firm with two offices as at a firm with twenty.

Doing a secondment also means taking one fewer seat in your home office, and when most of the big firms ask you to do litigation, finance and corporate this may mean you are choosing between a secondment and a niche seat like IP or employment. Unless your heart is set on grinding finance documents forever, you should at least pause to weigh up this opportunity cost.

Should I apply for international or client secondment?

Most people asking this question want to know which will make them a better lawyer:

I used to think that client secondments make you a better lawyer because, so the thinking goes, you learn the business needs of the client. I no longer think this applies to trainees. First, it isn’t guaranteed that the company you second to will be a client of the group you qualify into – you might spend six months in a bank’s advisory department, then qualify into an energy disputes team. There’s nothing wrong with this, but its career value is tangential at best.

Second, as a non-qualified lawyer you are obviously limited in experience. Lawyers provide value from having worked in certain sectors for years and years. Trainees are unable to advise whether certain clauses are normal practice, and unable to navigate complicated processes as if they were second nature.

International secondments, meanwhile seem a great way to help keep your firm’s international network alive – the logic is that in future you will know who to call in overseas offices and will gain an understanding of your host country’s business culture. While this makes sense, trainees are not at the coal face of the legal work and don’t yet have much to offer in terms of relationships. Once you return, you also have no say whether your new department will takes on cross-border work with your host office.

You will undoubtedly learn things on secondment as a trainee but the value of both types of secondment increases once you’re qualified. Post-qualification, you can be sure your client secondment is in an industry area you will focus on and you can be sure your international secondment is fulfilling a genuine business need. Base your decision on your own circumstances – if you’ve had limited exposure to other workplaces; a client secondment will be great! If you haven’t travelled much, go live somewhere new!

Should I go on secondment in my third seat or fourth seat?

Trainee folklore has two views on this. On the one hand,you should go in your fourth seat. Your third seat should be the seat you want to qualify into because you will have had a solid year’s experience and there’s only two months of fourth seat for you to impress before you make job applications!

On the other hand, you should go in your third seat – you really should be back in the office while applying for jobs because of interviews, schmoozing your preferred groups and basking in the inevitable hysteria that is a group of earnest 20-somethings coming to the end of a gruelling “two-year interview”.

Realistically you can qualify into anywhere you have sat and even places you haven’t, which is fairly common. You also won’t be penalised for being out of the country come job application time – your firm will fly you back or do Skype interviews (if interviews are required at all). You should, though, keep in touch with any groups in which you’re interested throughout your training contract.

What if I don’t get given one?

If you asked for a secondment and didn’t get one, you’re likely to be disappointed – particularly if you were induced into signing your training contract, in part, because of the lure of secondments!

You might try and subdue your frustration, though, by assuring yourself that a career in law is a long game – measured in six-yearly intervals rather six-monthly intervals – and secondments are super effective as an associate compared with as a trainee.

You will also get to experience another area of the firm and another area of law, which isn’t as exciting as a secondment but will be useful for building deeper work relationships with people you will actually work with and learning more about how your actual client (i.e. the partnership) functions; both skills you thought you’d only get from a secondment! The exotic stories from friends returning from abroad should more than make up for staying back at base camp…

Michael Hornsey is a trainee at an international law firm. You can follow him on Twitter at @michaelhornsey.

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