Practically all top-tier law firms offer secondments to entice the best trainees and to provide a more rounded training experience. But how will going on secondment, either to an overseas office or to a client, benefit your legal career? We take a look.
Linklaters is an example of a firm that looks to send all its trainees on either an international or client secondment, and its website boasts that its trainees “can expect a truly international and multi-dimensional experience”.
Are these secondments good for a young lawyer’s career? The big firms clearly think so, but are they right?
Let’s examine each type of secondment in turn.
At the very least, a secondment gives you a chance to experience working in a different environment. This can be invaluable, especially if you have had only limited workplace experience. Doubly so if you are working in a foreign country.
If your training contract is with a firm with a large UK base and outposts around the world, you will probably be working in a much smaller office overseas than the one you have left behind. This offers several advantages.
First, you are likely to get involved in a broader range of work. It is easy to become pigeonholed in a narrow field in the main office, less so in an overseas office where there are simply fewer people to do the work. This can lead to more hands-on responsibility and a closer working relationship with partners and senior lawyers.
It also means you are more likely to see a transaction through from start to finish. This can be a refreshing change. One complaint we often hear from NQs (and firms trying to recruit them) is that their experience has been limited to working on one aspect of a large transaction or case. They haven’t seen the full picture, just detailed close-ups of some of the brushwork.
Additionally, trainee solicitors often experience more client involvement when overseas. This can include pitching for new business, going to more client meetings or attending conferences on behalf of the firm. Opportunities like this, and the tight bonds formed with colleagues in a foreign office, are great for building your network both inside and outside the firm. You will probably get to know seconded trainees in other UK firms in the same location too.
Finally, the more rounded you are as a person the better a lawyer will be. To quote Rudyard Kipling: “And what should they know of England who only England know?”
Having the chance to live in a foreign country, see its culture close-up and how its business world operates can only be a positive experience. Plus, many trainees use their time abroad either during, before or after their secondment to travel and enjoy themselves. Even lawyers are allowed to relax and enjoy themselves!
Perhaps the biggest benefit of a client secondment is that you get to see things from the client’s side of the fence. You gain a deeper understanding of the issues clients face day to day and what they require from a lawyer.
In many cases, seconded trainees are expected to advise clients on a host of problems that would be too small to be dealt with by their law firm or are outside the firm’s expertise. There is nowhere to hide and trainee solicitors need to be able to think on their feet and take responsibility. Often, you will come face to face with customers or suppliers of the client and will be expected to manage transactions on you own. And, as you may be the sole legal representative present you will be required to contribute in meetings – without the safety net of a partner.
This can work wonders for your confidence and set you up for qualification, especially if (as is usually the case) your secondment is towards the end of your training contract. (More on this below.)
That’s not to say you won’t get support when needed. In fact, one of the benefits of a client secondment is that you will probably end up dealing with a variety of lawyers in your law firm across a range of departments. So, it can be a great networking opportunity both within the firm, and, of course, with your new colleagues.
WHICH IS BETTER? AND WHEN SHOULD YOU GO ON SECONDMENT?
Both client and international secondments are clearly worthwhile experiences. But which is better? That’s hard to answer, as much will depend on the client, the country, the size of the overseas office, the nature of the work you will be doing, etc.
What we can tell you is that a few leading US firms with a London office have told us that when they are hiring an NQ Solicitor, they want to know if they have been on a client secondment as a trainee. The reason? They expect only the best trainees to be let loose with clients and see this as a good yardstick of a trainee solicitor’s ability and standing within their firm.
Finally, there is much debate among trainees about when you should take your secondment. This is usually in your second year, but which is better your third or fourth seat? Some favour it as the fourth seat. The prevailing wisdom here is that you should try to spend your third seat in the department you want to qualify into. This gives you a full six months to impress whereas if you go in your fourth seat you will only have around two months there before you need to make your NQ application.
On the other hand, some say you need to be in your home office during your fourth seat. This is when you should be ingratiating yourself with the partners and other people who matter in your favoured department. You will also be on hand to do face to face interviews rather than awkward ones over Skype or Face Time.