Lawyers can gain many professional and personal advantages from secondments, but sometimes what seems to be a good thing can actually hurt your career prospects.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at some factors to consider if you’re asked about taking a secondment.
What is a Secondment for Lawyers?
Ordinarily, a secondment is a short or medium-term placement at one of your firm’s clients.
It usually involves working inside an in-house team at the client, either as part of their ongoing requirements or as part of a specific project with a particular purpose.
Your firm will normally offer a reduced rate for your full-time involvement with the client compared to your normal monthly budget, and bill them accordingly for the duration of your secondment.
Of course, a stint in a secondment can give you a first-hand taste of what being an in-house lawyer looks like but is it necessarily a good decision for your long term career path?
So the first question becomes…
What are your Career Goals?
What are you hoping to achieve in your legal career?
This isn’t the easiest question to answer of course, and the answer might change over time. But right now, as you consider the question of secondment, what does your intended career path look like?
In particular, are you hoping to develop your expertise in order to one day take up a full-time in-house position?
Alternatively, is your focus on developing a path towards partnership in private practice?
Or perhaps it is something else entirely, such as preferring to become a technical, experienced lawyer but not necessarily concerning yourself with the aspects of career progression or partnership.
Whatever the case, before you can assess the benefits or risks of taking a secondment you need to appreciate how the experience will dovetail with your career goals.
How Long Will the Secondment Be For?
There is a significant difference on every level between spending a fortnight at a client’s premises doing a specialised task for a particular project and spending 12 months there working as an integral part of their in-house team.
Firstly, being substantially out of your own office for a longer period is going to have a significant impact politically – that is, on your relationships around the office. You will be seen less, participate less, and be less able to develop rapport with the existing partners and staff. That, of course, has an impact on your career.
Balance that though with the importance of the client to the firm, and the project or role to the client. Will your long term investment in this client be perceived as highly valuable to the firm, and the relationships you develop in-house with that client be ultimately more beneficial than what you could accomplish in the office?
Which leads to… what are you working on now? Is it a matter of high importance or value? Is it something in which you have invested a lot of emotional labour, or in which the firm has a significant stake?
Weigh up these questions, and consider how being away for a length of time will impact your position in your firm from these perspectives.
As we’ve mentioned before in more detail, there are considerable differences in the type of work you’re likely to do in-house and the type of work you’re probably doing in private practice.
Depending on your area, being on secondment might mean you’re not available to take up the next big litigation, the large merger, the deal of the decade. Are you OK with that? Is there something in the pipeline that was particularly important for you?
The secondment experience will give you an excellent opportunity to see things through your client’s eyes, and that has definite value. It will offer a more commercial view of how legal decisions are made and give you an opportunity to see how legal advice is one part of a larger puzzle in commercial operations.
However, from the perspective of pure legal work, it might not offer the same challenges and opportunities that could be available if you stayed put inside your firm.
A Taste of Things to Come
If you’ve had in-house in your sights for a while but been reluctant to make the jump, a secondment could be an excellent opportunity to try before you buy.
Once you have experienced it, it might solidify in your mind that you should be seeking an opportunity to move to an in-house position at the earliest available opportunity. Alternatively, it might convince you that in-house practice is nothing like what you thought, and private practice is the best place for you right now.
And if you find that in-house is exactly what you’ve been looking for, the secondment will also give you a benefit for your CV. Many in-house positions find previous in-house experience desirable, and you can now tick that box.
But Be Careful of your Budget
Because secondments are often charged by your firm at lower than standard rates, it’s going to have an impact on your budget. That, in turn, might affect your annual review, your bonus structure, and the general perception of your contribution.
At the very least it is worth discussing those things before accepting, to ensure you’re happy with the answers that are provided.
Because if you spend 6 months of the financial year making 50% of your normal budget, it’s going to be nearly impossible to catch that up in the second half.
So What’s the Verdict?
For many people, a secondment is a great opportunity to experience things from a client’s perspective, enjoy a change from the day-to-day of private practice, and build their expertise in commercial aspects of decision making.
However, it can also have a significant effect on your career.
Whether that effect is positive or negative is ultimately up to you, and what you think your career should look like going forward.
Need help deciding? Reach out and we’re happy to chat through it with you.