Requesting a secondee - what to ask for

It’s a common issue that in-house teams struggle with a lack of resources.

At best, teams are staffed to deal with the day-to-day volume of work which is expected to arise and manage the ebb-and-flow of other projects using external law firms or other providers.

One way that in-house teams commonly cope is to utilise secondments from one of their law firms. Often, larger teams will have several secondees with them at any one time and may have formal arrangements for a rotation of secondees from their panel firms. 

Approaching your law firms for a secondment

Some of the considerations you will want to work through might include:

  • When to make an approach. If you think you would like to request a secondee, the earlier that an approach can be made, the better. While many firms are happy to provide a secondee, few staff up on the basis that they will be short of significant numbers of people on secondment, and the more planning that can be achieved, the better.
  • Concept v. detail. Sometimes you may simply feel that in concept a secondee would be helpful, but in others, more detail may have formed. It’s important to involve the law firm in the discussion so that they can help to formulate a proposal that is acceptable to you both.
  • Broader arrangements. Does the secondment arrangement sit within broader arrangements – for example, do you have a panel agreement with the law firm under which they provide secondees – or might expect to be asked? Is the firm working on a major transaction or piece of litigation where additional resources in-house would be helpful?
  • How might the firm benefit? Look at the position from the firm’s viewpoint as well as your own – will it help to secure future work? Will it bring more knowledge of your organisation? Will it help to cement relationships? Stress what skills the secondee will learn.
  • Cost. What financial arrangements are proposed – are you expecting the secondee to come free or simply in return for reimbursement of the actual cost, or is a commercial rate proposed?
  • Probationary or trial periods. It can be helpful to propose a probationary or trial period to ensure that the arrangements work well, and to give an opportunity to tweak them.
  • Practicalities. Do you want the secondee to be located in your office, or are you happy for them to be based with the firm? What about working from home – and whose policies will the secondee be expected to observe? Be clear about holiday and absence arrangements too. Be clear about what induction you will give to the secondee to smooth things along.
  • What if the firm needs the secondee back? The firm may need the secondee back relatively urgently – for example, if they have resourcing issues themselves as a result of illness. What will you expect if that circumstance arises? Would you want the firm to continue to provide a resource, even if, for example, the new person might need to be located remotely?
  • What if the secondee leaves? Similarly, if the secondee leaves, will you expect the firm to replace them? What notice do you require?
  • Keeping under review. It can be worth introducing formal review arrangements with the secondee and the firm to ensure that the secondment continues to be helpful – and that there are no issues of concern that might lead to deteriorating relationships between the parties. As with any problems, the sooner they can be identified and addressed, the better.

Would a secondee be helpful?

Sometimes a secondee is an attractive idea, but the reality can be different. You might want to think about, for example:

  • What do you want the secondee to do? It sounds like an obvious point, but for a secondment to work successfully, you need to decide what you want the secondee to do. Are they to carry out a specific, defined, task such as a review or report, the handling of a particular piece of work or litigation, or to provide additional resources for your team?
  • Do they have the skills you need or will you be teaching them? If you are expecting a secondee to provide a ready-to-go resource from day 1, it’s important to be clear on that and to agree with the law firm. Be careful to avoid a situation where you think the secondee will reduce your workload but proper delegation increases it.
  • Do you have time to manage and supervise them properly? Following on from that point, do you have time to manage them properly? Will their supervision come from the firm, from your team, or both? Bear in mind that they may be used to a closer level of supervision – and the carrying out of more closely-defined tasks – than may be the case in-house.
  • Will they report to someone in your legal team, to the firm, or both? In the same way that supervision arrangements need to be clear, so does the reporting line. In many cases, in-house teams slot a secondee into the reporting structure of the team so that a secondee will have, for example, monthly one-to-one meetings as well as normal day-to-day supervision, but they may also keep regular check-in calls with the firm.
  • What about confidentiality? You will want to be clear about confidentiality – what can the secondee report back to the law firm, and how client confidentiality is respected? You will want to ensure that the secondee’s professional duties are properly observed and that all parties ensure that their position is clear.
  • Who is responsible if they make a mistake? From time to time, the secondee may make a mistake, or even be professionally negligent. It follows from your consideration of supervision and management that you need also to be clear about who bears that responsibility – is it the law firm (and their insurer) or the host in-house team?
  • Who provides their tech? You may well want the secondee to work as an integral part of the in-house team, but that may mean that you need to provide them with a phone, laptop, and other tech to do so rather than to work through the firm’s IT. Be clear about who is providing what – and who has access to your systems.
  • Do they need resources to support them? In a major law firm, a lawyer may be used to more in the way of administrative and technical support, precedents, and other resources than would typically be the case in-house. It is helpful to be clear up-front with the secondee and the firm about what the arrangements will be.
  • Have you had a secondee previously, and was the arrangement successful? You may have worked with several secondees over several years – if so, were the arrangements successful, and what have you learned about ensuring the success of a new arrangement?
  • Does the secondee want to come, and will they ‘fit’? In recruiting a permanent member of staff, you will take great care to ensure you have the right person, that they want to come, and that they will ‘fit’ your team in terms of skills, experience, culture, and resources. While the same checks may not be possible or appropriate for a secondee, nonetheless you do want to ensure that they want to come, will work well in your team, and will enjoy being with you. Someone who is essentially pressed into the role is unlikely to achieve all you would like. At the very least you will want to meet the person and give them the courtesy of understanding the role, who they will work with, and what you expect them to do.

What to ask for

Some of the things you might ask for include:

  • Defining the secondee role. It can be helpful to define a secondee role in the same way that you would an internal one – using your standard processes to be clear about what the role is for, whom it reports to, what outcomes are expected, and so forth.
  • Expected outcomes. It’s particularly important to agree on the expected outcomes – is a particular project, or part of a project, required to be achieved? Is a specific task – such as a report or a particular transaction – intended?
  • What level of secondee do you need? Are you looking for a trainee, a paralegal, an associate, or indeed a partner? Is it clear that the person proposed has the experience to achieve the expected outcomes? What if the person available seems to be of a different level to the one you think you need?
  • How long for? Sometimes it can be quite difficult to identify for how long a secondment is needed – or for how long a secondee is available. A firm might be willing to offer a trainee for the equivalent of a six-month seat because that fits into their trainee rotation, or an associate for a particular period – but will want to bear in mind that an associate could become concerned if they are away from the firm for too long, and whether that might hinder their prospects. Equally, you will need to ensure you have a secondment of a sensible period given the task required.
  • Where will they be located? Give some thought to where the role will be based – and how you will work and deal with supervision if the individual is not co-located with your team.
  • One-off or continuing relationship? You may need a secondment for a short-term role – but do consider how that might fit with any ongoing relationship with the firm, and whether they are a member of your law firm panel. Are you able to leverage that relationship to give you an ongoing secondment rotation, for example?
  • Fit with ongoing projects. How does the secondment fit with current project arrangements?
  • Who pays – and how much? As mentioned about approaching the firm, the question of who pays – and how much – is important, and an integral part of the discussion.
  • Changes and extensions. If you need the secondee for less – or more – time, it can be very helpful to have identified at the start how you might expect to deal with changes and extensions.
  • Alternatives to secondment. Depending on how your discussions go, you might want to consider whether you do want a secondee, or whether in fact, you might be better to recruit on a short-term contract or to take a lawyer from one of the alternative staffing providers who may offer lawyers on a contract basis.

What are the pitfalls

  • Differing expectations. It can become clear – sometimes quite quickly – that what you expect and what the secondee thinks they are doing can be different. It’s important to keep it under review and to deal with differing expectations quickly.
  • Performance. Poor performance can be more difficult to spot in a secondment than in a normal environment – clearly, people need to have a chance to settle in, and you will need to work with them on the requirements of a new role. If performance is genuinely an issue, though, ensure it is flagged and dealt with in a timely fashion.
  • Homesickness. Sometimes – for no one’s fault – the secondment doesn’t work because the secondee simply feels uncomfortable with the unfamiliar arrangements. If this is the case, it’s generally better to recognise it and terminate the arrangement early while goodwill is retained on all sides.
  • Travel and location. In the same way, a secondee may become uncomfortable with increased travel or a change in location from their home firm. Be aware of the implications of any changes you seek – for example, might they cause difficulties with caring responsibilities?
  • Differing environments. Even if the secondee is doing familiar work, typically they may find that the in-house environment differs from the law firm, perhaps requiring more self-reliance.
  • Divided loyalties. A secondee, particularly at junior level, can sometimes feel that their loyalties are divided between the firm and the in-house client.
  • Support arrangements. Be aware that the level of support from admin and tech teams may be very different in-house to in a large law firm.
  • Culture. The culture of an in-house team may also differ from a law firm – and it can be helpful to give the secondee a buddy in the team to help them settle in.
  • Recruiting secondees. Finally, be aware that secondees will often find they enjoy life in-house, and may want to stay. You will want to have a view about how you will deal with that possibility with the law firm if it arises, even if you don’t discuss it at the outset.

Further reading
CLL Article: Going on secondment

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