The Inside Scoop on Client Secondments
Q: What is a client secondment, and how and why might an associate get seconded?
A: In the legal industry, a client secondment usually refers to the “lending” of a law firm associate to one of the firm’s clients for a finite period of time. Generally, the secondment comes about when a client makes a request of the partner with whom they have a relationship. The reasons for the secondment can vary. In some cases, the client is in need of more dedicated help, and requests a specific associate, likely because the client is familiar with that associate, and has been impressed by his/her work. In other instances, it may be to fill a client’s short-term gap (e.g., after an employee departure), or because the firm has an ongoing agreement, sometimes embodied in the retainer, that it will supply a consistent flow of associates to meet the client’s needs. In either scenario, you will likely be told of the opportunity by a partner, and be offered a choice as to whether you’d like to pursue it.
Just like the secondment itself, there’s no single rationale behind why it is that your firm may have chosen to ask you. Every situation is different, and should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether your career goals, and the client’s/firm’s goals, are aligned.
Q: What are the pros of accepting a client secondment?
A: There are several reasons why it might make sense to pursue a secondment. Among them:
- You need a break. A secondment may offer a substantial lifestyle improvement, if only temporarily.
- You want to be viewed as a “team player.” Accepting a secondment (whether by client demand or firm proffer) can cement your reputation as someone that’s willing to go to bat for the partners and the firm.
- You have in-house aspirations. If you’re interested in, or have long-planned on, making a future in-house move, the secondment experience can give you the “in-house feel” and serve as confirmation that that path is, or is not, right for you. Many associates view an in-house role as the “holy grail” of legal employment; anecdotally, however, both my colleagues and I are aware of situations in which an associate who made this move felt bored or under-stimulated in his/her new role. A secondment, therefore, can serve as a window into the in-house experience without you having to make a longer-term commitment. In that same vein, if you find that you not only like the in-house experience, but really enjoy working for this particular client, then another positive is that the secondment can be a gateway to a longer-term employment offer.
Q: What are the cons of accepting a client secondment?
A: There are also several reasons it might make sense not to pursue a secondment. Among them:
- Growth, interrupted. There’s a reason why the most senior, and successful, in-house lawyers usually have law firm backgrounds: law firm training is the gold-standard. That said, and particularly if you’re a junior lawyer, accepting a secondment – even if it’s just for a period of several months – may stunt your growth, and disrupt your professional development as compared to your peers.
- Potential bias in future hiring. This is by no means a hard and fast rule, but if you think it’s likely you’ll make a lateral move at some point in the future, some firms – however unfairly – may view your secondment as an indicator that your current employer viewed you as a less-than-stellar associate (if only because a secondment necessarily implies that your firm is willing to lose you for a period of time), or as evidence that your experience is not as strong as others of your same class year.
Q: What else should I do before making a final decision?
A: It’s always worthwhile to speak with someone you trust and get their take on the situation. Sit down with the partner who offered you the secondment, or if that feels too uncomfortable, grab a coffee with a senior colleague or mentor. Use these conversations, if possible, as an opportunity to find out where you stand, and whether you should interpret the offer as an indication of your superstardom…or something else. Any moment that spurs an assessment of your growth potential at your law firm is a good one (I promise!). This is so even if it turns out that the secondment was an implicit message about your lack of partnership prospects. Why? Because knowing puts you in control: you can remediate, plan, and, if necessary, go elsewhere.
If it turns out that you need to take the secondment – either because you feel beholden to the request of a favorite client or feel pressure to step up from your firm – stay in touch with your supervisors and colleagues. You’ll want to make sure you know what your peers are learning so you can do your best to mold the experience to your benefit. Finally, make sure to impress the client! Impressing the client means impressing your firm, and setting yourself up for the best possible outcome no matter where your career takes you!