Secondment – however you pronounce it, worth another look

Over the course of two round-trips between BigLaw and in-house, and now in my consulting practice, I’ve encountered various examples of and opinions about secondments in the legal world. I’ve also heard it pronounced a wide variety of ways across the globe.

Most often I’ve seen mid-level associates going to work for a major client on a dedicated basis for three months to a year. I’ve also been involved with shorter secondments involving young partners. Compensation arrangements for the seconded lawyer can range from no charge, to a fixed fee based on cost recovery, to a discounted daily or weekly rate. And it doesn’t have to be a lawyer going from a firm to a client – I observed up-close one law department that periodically seconds a promising junior in-houser to the head office of their primary outside law firm for a year or more.

Although secondments between BigLaw and their major corporate clients are by no means rare, I believe they are a substantially underused tool for enhancing client relationships. The seconding law firm can enhance an important client relationship. The seconded lawyer gets an up-close education in how the company works, and has the opportunity to build deep and lasting relationships with the in-house team and their business colleagues. The in-house team is able to closely review the work, and work style, of the seconded lawyer, on a wide variety of projects. Of course, there are various financial, employment relationship, conflicts and other issues that have to be addressed, but there are a variety of good precedents for addressing each.

However, after a recent conversation with a General Counsel who controls an eight-digit legal spend, it occurred to me that there are some corollary principles that sometimes do not get sufficient attention when planning and executing a secondment. Once the secondee is on board and the in-house team has invested time and energy in getting to know the secondee and training her in “how we do things here,” they are likely to be very invested in her future. They will want to hear directly from the firm, on a timely basis, about major career events involving the secondee after she returns to the firm. For example, if she ends up not making partner, the client likely will want to know about that early on, so they can make a job offer before she leaves for another opportunity.

My recommendation to General Counsels and other law department leaders – talk with your primary outside firms about the possibility of a secondment. But be sure to think through, and be candid with the law firm about, your expectations for how the engagement will be structured (including financial terms) – and the fact that your ROI on the arrangement includes not only a good deal on legal services, but a long-term relationship with the seconded lawyer. And law firms, do the same with your major clients.

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