The market downturn in the late 2000s forced the legal industry to make fundamental changes to its business models that might not have been contemplated otherwise. While we are all aware of the negative impact the financial crisis caused, there are positive outcomes of these necessary changes. One such positive outcome is the increased number of secondments. The word "secondment" is derived from a British military term describing the temporary removal and reassignment of an officer from his regiment for employment on the staff or in some other extra-regimental appointment.
Prior to the downturn, the practice of secondments was common in British law firms as well as other professional service firms. In the current legal environment, secondments refer to law firms relocating their attorneys to a client's location. A firm may consider doing this in three situations:
- To provide temporary onsite assistance for clients
- To make specialized experience available on site for a given period of time on a fixed-price basis
- To reinforce the client relationship
For these reasons, secondments can strengthen client loyalty, promote cross-selling of legal services, capture useful client and business intelligence, and distinguish a firm from its competitors.
The combination of underutilized lawyers in law firms and understaffed corporate legal departments has resulted in an increase in the number of secondment arrangements between U.S. law firms and their clientsi. Since 2009, American Lawyer's "Survey of Firm Leaders" and Hildebrandt® Baker Robbins' 2011 Client Advisory have included information pertaining to secondments. The data confirm secondments are on the rise: 78% of respondents in 2011 indicated they have secondment programs in place, up from 70% in 2010 and 60% in 2009ii. Interestingly, there is no data prior to the 2009 survey.
In today's competitive market, one way firms respond to opposition over fees is by building closer ties to key clients. Corporate clients are looking to their law firms to provide not just competitive rates, but also genuine added value in the services the firms provide. Secondments provide a unique opportunity for developing satisfaction, as well as collaboration between the client and law firmiii.
In fact, questions pertaining to secondments are becoming more prevalent in RFPs, and firms are including information about secondment activities in their recruiting materials. Clearly, secondment programs are an important component of a law firm's business development strategy.
Secondments provide benefits other than just an alternative for firms that want to avoid attorney layoffs. Even as the market improves, it is unlikely secondments will diminish. Rather than being considered a short-term solution, secondments should be viewed and evaluated according to the ways they enhance the relationship between law firms and their clients. A successful program should be administered in the context of general business purposes for, and objectives of, the secondments.
Moreover, secondment programs must be managed, monitored, and measured. While there are multiple business purposes driving the use of secondments, regardless of the purpose, client satisfaction remains the ultimate goal. In short, the seconded attorney is an ambassador of the firm.
A client's need for temporary onsite legal assistance is often met through a secondment. Following the restructuring of a client's in-house organization, Tamra Ferguson, an associate with Reed Smith, went on secondment for approximately five months. In speaking about her experiences, Ferguson said, "The secondment gave me the opportunity to really get to know the client's business and industry. I also had the chance to talk to the in-house lawyers about their day-to-day responsibilities, as well as what they want and need from outside counsel."
With respect to professional development, Ferguson said, "I think one of the biggest benefits to my personal practice is that I got to witness firsthand the complications that arise when a client is trying to collect documents in response to discovery requests. There are issues faced by in-house counsel that I had not realized previously, and this knowledge will improve my ability to communicate effectively with in-house counsel in future discovery endeavors. Given how complicated and expensive discovery can be, this knowledge should help me to streamline the ... process on future collections and reviews."
What started out as a way to provide temporary assistance has resulted in solidifying the firm's relationship with the client, expanding the associate's knowledge of the client's business, and improving the associate's ability to communicate effectively with in-house counsel, while meeting wonderful, hardworking people.
Secondment opportunities can be a vital component of associate and trainee development. Firmly established in the United Kingdom and growing in popularity in the United States, secondments are a method for associates or trainees to gain practical experience. A secondment provides an opportunity that includes more than the development of legal skills. Secondees:
- Glean important insights into the culture, values, and ethos of a client
- Learn how a client legal department functions and operates within the context of a client organization
- Understand what a client really values by living its legal challenges
- Gain insights into how clients make decisions
The commercial insights the secondee acquires are second to none, ranging from learning which areas of legal expertise are covered in-house and which tend to be referred to external lawyers, the strategic challenges facing the organization and its legal requirements, how the legal function is organized to support the different business units of the organization, and so much more. These are lessons that are not taught in law school and can only be experienced firsthand.
According to Panagiota Ntassiou, a Reed Smith associate on long-term secondment with a client in Greece, "I have enhanced my knowledge of the pharmaceuticals and cosmetics industry. I often find myself facing requests for advice from every sector in the client's organization. This experience has expanded my expertise in various areas of law and also taught me how to deal effectively with clients on a personal level." Working on the client's premises is working on the front line, and this knowledge is something you gain only by being there.
In today's competitive market, firms use secondments to strengthen their client relationship and to demonstrate their commitment to the client's specific needs. Secondees work as members of the client's in-house team. This results in solid working relationships which continue after the secondment ends. In fact, secondments help differentiate a firm from its competitors by providing value-added service to the client's businessiv.
At a time when clients expect collaboration with the law firms they retain, secondments are a mechanism for achieving this goal. Business development is often a natural outcome because the seconded lawyer is more aware of issues the client faces on a day-to-day basis and is able to proactively offer additional firm resources.
Reed Smith counsel Marilyn Heffley has participated in two secondments. Enhancing the firm's relationship with its clients has been the primary reason for her secondments. Heffley states, "Being fully integrated in the client's legal department provides me with an opportunity to see firsthand what frustrates in-house counsel, namely, that outside counsel often does not know or understand the details of how the business units operate. Recognizing that business people see problems and lawyers see resolutions has been helpful with gaining another understanding of how corporate America thinks." Through her secondments, Heffley has been able to cross-sell services because she is aware of issues and cases as soon as they develop. She also follows up with Reed Smith attorneys to maintain an excellent relationship with the client.
Certain measures should be taken to ensure that the secondment is a success. Prior to the secondment, the client and firm must discuss their expectations and goals they hope to achieve through the secondment. Communication before, during, and after the secondment will ensure the secondment is a win-win for all involved. As the secondment progresses, the client receives quality legal service while the attorney learns the client's culture and business. Secondees build and develop strong relationships and create an atmosphere of trust, which will allow the firm to provide more efficient, knowledgeable legal v services in the futurev.
At the completion of the secondment, the lawyer returns to the law firm with a valuable insight on how the firm can expand the scope of its legal services to the client. In addition, the seconded lawyer will likely be the point of contact when the client is seeking legal advice in the attorney's practice area. A successful secondment program benefits the client, the law firm, and the seconded lawyer.
Now that lawyer secondments have become part of a law firm's strategy and culture, what does the future have in store? Will secondment programs be expanded to administrative functions such as human resources, accounting, IT, and library services? It is no secret that knowing your client's business needs is an important step in providing timely and relevant service. In today's competitive environment, collaborating with clients through secondment programs is an approach firms can use to distinguish themselves from their competition.
i. Secondments and Salaries: A Temporary Fix or Something Better? (August 2009). Compensation & Benefits for Law Offices, Vol. 2009, No.8. Available: Westlaw.com at 09-8 CBLOFF 1.
ii. Hildebrandt Baker Robbins and Citi Private Bank, 2011 Client Advisory, 6, https://peermonitor.thomsonreuters.com/ThomsonPeer/docs/
2011_Client_Advisory_FINAL.pdf (last visited December 1, 2011).
iii. The American Lawyer's Survey of Firm Leaders Finds Low Profitability Growth Expectations, As Clients Pay Slower, Demand Discounts, BusinessWire, http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20111201006077/en/American-Lawyer%E2%80%99s-Survey- Firm-Leaders-Finds-Profitability (last visited December 16, 2011).
iv. John Trotter, Every Secondment Counts, Lawyer, (June 4, 2007), http://www.thelawyer.com/every-secondment-counts/126323.article (last visited December 16, 2011).
v. H. Ward Classen, Secondment: A Valuable Option for In-house Staffing, The Daily Record, (November 29, 2011), http://thedailyrecord.com/2011/09/29/secondment-a-valuable-option-for-in-house-staffing/ (last visited December 16, 2011).
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