Career clinic: How do I approach a firm about a two-week partner secondment?
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“We often have relatively junior associates from our informal panel of external law firms doing up to three-month secondments at our large multi-national corporate in-house legal department. It is an excellent way of building up their familiarity with the business and solidifying relationships.
“I’d like to extend this programme to some of the firm’s partners by doing shorter — say a fortnight — secondments for a few key players. But I’m not sure how these senior figures would react. Is it worth pressing on with the suggestion?”
Richard Shoylekov: Group General Counsel, Wolseley
It’s an interesting idea but there are a few questions. Junior associate secondments are a great way for your law firms to get to know your team and the business. Three months is just about the minimum period needed before the secondment is really effective and beneficial, both for the in-house team and for the associate and law firm. What would be the purpose of a two-week partner secondment?
It is always valuable to establish a good working relationship between partners and in-house counsel as well as senior management. The partner should gain a strong understanding of the business, its risks and its strategic objectives, so that he/she is able to take a more holistic approach to the advice given.
The partner could therefore spend the two weeks visiting key operations, meeting senior management, perhaps attending and observing a few meetings – for example of a committee on a major project, or of the management team, the executive committee or the board. Two weeks is potentially a long time for a partner to be out of the office, but all these things could be spread out if necessary.
The idea is worth exploring, but I would ask the team first: What is our relationship like with this firm? How do we want it to be? What is the most effective role that the partner could play in building that relationship? That could then help to shape the conversation with the partner – and the secondment if you get to agree it.
Christine Cordon: General Counsel, Secret Escapes
Secondments work because they give external advisers an excellent opportunity to really understand your business. That deeper understanding feeds into their advice, which you develop more faith in, so you instruct them more and the virtuous circle continues… Bearing this in mind, it’s an excellent idea to invite partners to complete a secondment and I recommend pressing ahead.
But, what I would say is do bear in mind why it is usually junior lawyers who undertake client secondments. The commercial reality is that junior lawyers are just more dispensable. Asking a partner to take time out of the firm is a really big ask and so I only think it is justified if you give them a sufficient chunk of work to make it worthwhile.
You can pay for the secondment of course, or keep it very short as you suggest. But ultimately the biggest issue for a partner will be opportunity cost and so you have to be mindful of the give-get balance.
Notwithstanding all of the above I have known partners to do client secondments (litigation partners, investment banks) and they’ve loved it. There’s certainly no harm in asking.
John Allison: Partner, Hogan Lovells
Partner secondments are rarer than junior ones because they require a partner to focus exclusively on one client. Also, the costs of a secondment rise with the seniority of the secondee.
Secondments do tend to be for three months or more. There are a number of reasons for that; the procedural, IT and HR requirements of seconding personnel and the requirement to release secondees from their existing client work may make two-week secondments inefficient; it also takes a secondee time to embed on a secondment and two weeks may not be sufficient.
As an alternative, some clients run relationship days or workshops for their panel firms; these are a very efficient and successful way for clients to brief their lawyers on key areas of focus.
Jon-Paul Hanrahan: Associate director, Douglas Scott
One never knows what is around the corner and providing the opportunity for partners to get up close and personal and develop relationships with their clients sounds like a great idea. The most successful companies fix their customers firmly at the centre of their business proposition.
If you believe there would be value in having some of the senior team in for a few weeks, then I would suggest you push forward with your suggestion. It will provide you an opportunity to stress test some of your legal service supplier relationships. From a partner point of view it’s a chance to gain some valuable insight into business culture and dynamics, maybe even lift up the bonnet and identify some mutually beneficial cross-selling opportunities.
As you have already established, it has been of benefit to the junior team, selling the same deal to the senior team should
Isabelle Meyer: Legal director, Moët Hennessy Europe
The idea is brilliant, but I reckon that most partners may be reluctant to be away from their practices, even for a duration of two weeks. I guess the reaction of the partner will depend on many factors, one of them being the amount of work the client gives the firm. If the firm is the ‘chosen one’ for – let’s say – all commercial matters, and charges more than a certain amount per year, it may be worth pressing on the suggestion.
Another important factor will be the person extending the request to the partner. If the request comes from the GC or the CEO, the partner may be more inclined to accommodate the request.
It is also my understanding that there are periods (such as summer) during which firms tend to have less work. Therefore, if the partner is given the opportunity to propose convenient dates, he or she may be willing.
The GC/CEO should also carefully prepare before approaching the relevant partner, and be able to demonstrate that such an initiative may be beneficial to both parties.
Finally, ‘branding’ will be key. A partner may not be willing to do a ‘secondment’; he or she may, however, be interested in considering joining the in-house department for a couple of weeks for a new ‘initiative’ or ‘cooperation scheme’. The term ‘secondment’ may indeed be seen as applying to junior/senior associates, and may not be appropriate for a partner.
In conclusion, I believe it is a great idea and that it’s worth trying if the client has good arguments and is able to present this initiative in a way that is appealing to the partner.
The views expressed here are personal ones and do not necessarily reflect those of the panel’s organisations. If you’re a lawyer who wants to put a question to our panel of experts, email email@example.com