Working my way back to you

In many ways, the career path of most budding solicitors tends to be somewhat predictable as they join the conveyor belt towards partnership, sometimes even before they are qualified. Increasingly, however, young lawyers are being given an opportunity to diverge from the standard path without giving up the ghost on their chosen law firm altogether, by going on secondment.

A young trainee or assistant solicitor who is broadly committed to the firm in which they work may look at a secondment with some apprehension. What do you stand to gain from the opportunity? And more importantly, what might you lose?

In essence, secondments involve a lawyer spending a period of time working within an organisation without actually becoming an employee there. They will continue to be employed and paid by their existing employer, although there is likely to be an arrangement under which the cost to the law firm of providing the secondee is reimbursed.

By and large, there are three types of organisation to which assistant solicitors, and occasionally trainees, may be seconded:

Clients may need solicitors or trainees to help out in circumstances where there is a shortage of staff, and occasionally for specific projects.

There are a number of regulatory organisations throughout the City that use secondees as a way of ensuring that the people who work in those organisations are always fresh and enthusiastic. Typical examples of these types of secondments include the UK Listing Authority, the Takeover Panel and the Financial Services Authority, along with more academic review bodies such as the Financial Law Review Panel.

Law firms in other jurisdictions. Generally, UK law firms without overseas offices seek to service their clients' overseas needs by maintaining strong relationships with foreign law firms. Secondments are seen as a way of developing and strengthening those relationships.

In offering you a secondment, it is unlikely that the law firm is trying to tell you that you are not wanted. Certainly in the case of secondments to clients, it would be short-sighted to send less-able lawyers on secondment there. Generally, the firm will see a secondment with a client as being an opportunity for a strong assistant solicitor or trainee to develop the relationship further.

Secondments to regulatory authorities or review bodies, on the other hand, present the opportunity for a firm to expand and develop particular areas of expertise. It is expected that the secondee will come back with specific expertise that will be of benefit to the firm as a whole. Depending on the nature of the secondment, the law firm will also be hoping that new contacts will have been made that could bear fruit in the future.

Secondments to overseas law firms, while on the face of it appearing to be a great opportunity to spend six months abroad, are much more difficult to assess in terms of the benefits that accrue to the law firm itself. As a secondee to an overseas law firm, you will not be developing UK legal knowledge. This type of secondment is much more likely to be focused on the approach of the law firm concerning foreign lawyers and overseas offices, and is therefore likely to be part of the firm's overall strategy in this area.

So what risks does your firm face in sending you on secondment? Obviously, the biggest risk is that you will like it so much that you will not return. In most circumstances, there is rarely anything that the law firm can do about this, other than to try and ensure that your allegiance to the firm remains.

The other major risk for a law firm is sending a secondee who actually damages the relationship between the firm and the organisation to which they are seconded, because the secondee is not good enough. Being nominated, therefore, should in itself be reassuring.

Secondments to clients, if the client is important enough to the firm, can make you almost indispensable. They will also enable you to have an insight into that client's business far beyond anything that can be achieved at a distance. Also, if the client is in a business area that appeals to you and being a lawyer has not lived up to all of your expectations, a secondment to a non-legal environment will give you an opportunity to assess a different career avenue without taking the plunge too early.

Secondments to regulatory authorities represent a great opportunity to develop an area of expertise and practise skills which may otherwise be difficult to attain. Both within your law firm and within the legal market generally, this will usually give you a competitive advantage, which can be nothing but beneficial. Another aspect of secondments to regulatory authorities that a streetwise secondee will always be conscious of is the unparalleled opportunity to market both the firm and the individual during the course of the secondment.

Secondments to overseas firms also give you the opportunity to see what life is really like from the outside, and this is accompanied by the opportunity of working not only in another environment, but in another country, something that can be very appealing to young lawyers. Secondments to overseas law firms will also bring with them plenty of opportunities for expanding contact lists and developing relationships.

In general terms, therefore, secondments ought to be seen as an opportunity to have some time away from your law firm without actually leaving (thereby giving you the chance to see what life is really like on the outside), as well as an opportunity to develop your practice (either for the benefit of your firm or, if you do not return, for your own future benefit).

For those lawyers who are, and remain, committed to their original law firm, perhaps the most difficult aspect of a secondment is settling back in to your firm upon your return. Practical steps can be taken to ensure that this is not a problem and it is important for the secondee to ensure that they keep in contact with their law firm so as to be involved in all aspects of the firm's life while away.

In most cases, the potential benefits of a secondment should outweigh the downsides, provided the secondment is being arranged for the right reasons and with genuinely targeted benefits in mind. Secondments can be positively careerenhancing within a particular firm, and even if the secondment does ultimately result in you either moving firms or developing a different career path altogether, this only usually happens where it was always likely to be your destiny anyway. n

John Phillips and Simon Allport are partners in Gouldens' corporate department