Going on secondment

Going on secondment? Here, we provide a checklist to help you through a secondment from a private practice to an in-house legal team. We set out how to prepare for the experience, how to conduct yourself once it starts and how to make the most of what you learn.

If you’re a private practice lawyer about to (or looking to) go on secondment, you’ll need to prepare for a different culture and working environment to the one you’re used to. Life in-house can be very different to life in private practice. 

Your secondment checklist

If you’re about to go on secondment in-house, prepare for things to be quite different from what you’re used to.

Some of the main differences you’ll find are that:

  • The work is unremitting (no change here you might say) but you're not being assessed on the hours you put in. So you will need to prioritise to focus your time on advice that has real impact and makes a difference to your 'clients' - although you will probably work as hard in house as you do in private practice - it is not a holiday;
  • The 80/20 rule applies, so aim to get as much as possible done well, rather than complete a few tasks to perfection;
  • You’ll be providing guidance about legal risk for the organisation to base its decisions on, not making those decisions yourself (hence the job title legal advisor not legal decider or legal risk eliminator);
  • Few of the documents, legal resources and support you’ll need will be as extensive or even of the standard you’re used to; and
  • The structure and role of the in-house legal team may be confused and perhaps inadequately thought through.

To help you prepare for – and benefit from – your secondment, we’ve created this simple checklist.

Before you go

  • Understand the reasons for the secondment and the needs of any specific project you’ll be involved in.
  • Clarify your role and what the organisation you're joining will expect of you.
  • Read up on what the organisation does. If you can, get a copy of its induction pack.
  • Read up on areas of the law most likely to concern the organisation.
  • Ask for a ‘buddy’ in the organisation who can help you. This will avoid having to ask your temporary boss all your questions.
  • Ascertain what advice is subject to legal privilege and what’s not. The rules for in-house lawyers can be more restricted than for those working in private practice.
  • Commit to learning from the experience and see it as a great personal development opportunity.
  • Understand the dress code, corporate culture and practices - you are meant, within reason, to fit in as if you had chosen to work there. That said, this should never mean that you do anything that feels personally, culturally, religiously, gender identity or legally wrong to you. If you are in doubt or uncomfortable then escalate this politely and immediately with your law firm and/or the head of the client team rather than putting up with it.

When you start

  • Learn the organisation’s policies, processes and escalation points as soon as possible.
  • Develop good working relationships with your new team members and attend any social events you’re invited to.
  • Confirm the scope of your work.
  • Get to grips with the organisation’s document management system and document titling style.
  • Learn about the organisation’s sign off processes and authorities. The person asking you to do something may not necessarily have the authority to sign it off and the process could get tortuous. You may have to work within the monthly board meeting cycle and prepare papers to a specified format and submit them within a certain number of days beforehand.
  • If in doubt, escalate. If you think something is wrong at law, say so - it may be that they have missed a change in law (especially case law) or there may have been a policy decision for practical reasons (e.g. a problem with an IT programme). If the organisation then makes a decision contrary to your advice, keep records.

Returning to normal

  • Be ready for a full debrief and make your temporary employer aware of what you believe were your major contributions to its activity or the project you were involved in.
  • Tidy up your work, prepare handover notes and set email forwarding.
  • Explore areas that may enable you to extend your working relationship with the organisation beyond your secondment.
  • Document what you’ve learned while on secondment. If you feel you can improve processes or practices in your law firm, discuss your ideas with your permanent boss on your return.
  • Share your learnings with your colleagues. 

Conclusion

Going on a secondment is a great career opportunity. It’ll expose you to a new way of working, broaden your network and give you the chance to consider whether you see your future in-house. However, it’s very different to working in a private practice, so it helps to prepare yourself in advance for a cultural shift. We have created a workflow graphic, please let us know your thoughts.