The Joy Of Secs (secondments)

22 09 2011

I’ve been hanging out with a lot of in-house counsel recently, and one thing’s clear.

They love their secondees.

Really love them.

The working environment on secondment wasn't quite what senior corporate associate Sarah was expecting

Whether it’s a GC who is relying on a specialist skill set that he or she can’t quite find the budget to recruit, a mid-level corporate counsel who is working with a junior lawyer from private practice who helps with the “heavy lifting” on a big deal, or a small in-house team that find having a secondee gives them much broader access to their external law firm’s resources than their usual interaction – the sentiment is unanimous.

For law firms, secondments offer some incredible benefits too. Time and time again, clients point to knowledge of THEIR business as a critical factor in selecting their external lawyers. The insight secondees getting living and breathing in that environment can’t be gained from market research or reading up on the company. Plus, alongside the knowledge of how a client works, their culture, their pain points comes the opportunity to build broader and deeper relationships – not just with the in-house teams, but with their internal clients too.

Where a secondment programme has a rolling element (whether trainees or more experienced lawyers) and the firm puts in a continuous series of lawyers over time (for example a change every six months), this can build an incredibly strong connection over time between firm and corporate team and build a powerful competitive advantage for an incumbent law firm.

Outside of the particular secondment relationship, lawyers often return to private practice with a broader skill set and a better understanding of clients at a more general level, and are much better placed to empathise with the in-house community as a result. Plus in-house experience, even at a secondment level, really does does count when pitching for work with corporate counsel.

So it’s all sunshine and light?

Hell, let’s try and stick everyone on secondment and then we’ll never lose a client. Right?

Alas, it’s not quite that simple.

The major challenge law firms face is economics.

The basic premise of a secondment being that if a client has enough of the right type of work (generally consistent in terms of volume, skill and experience required), but not enough to make permanent recruitment an option, then taking a single lawyer on secondment will be cheaper than paying for that resource on an hourly rate basis. In return the law firm gets guaranteed utilisation of the lawyer, a degree of certainty of revenue and predictable cash flow.

But the world has changed. Because the competitive intensity in the legal market is increasing rapidly, and because firms have wised up to the broader benefits of secondments (set out above), the price that in-house teams have had to pay for a secondee has fallen rapidly.

As the economy tightened, putting secondees in “at cost” became more prevalent. At a superficial level, this again made sense – with firms restructuring and struggling to find work to keep all their lawyers busy (and therefore employed), farming them out to clients allowed them to retain their good people while keeping clients happy.

But in reality, often the exercise often ended up costing the firms more than they anticipated. Questions arose to what “at cost” actually meant. Was it salary cost (and if so did that include benefits, bonus etc)? What about a proportion of overheads (often asked as the finance director walked past the secondee’s empty desk in an expensive City location)? Who picked up the tab for the upgraded laptop that was required to get on the client’s network? What about the opportunity cost when another project turned up unexpectedly and the firm was struggling for a particular resource profile to do the work efficiently?

As the requests for secondments increased, difficult decisions had to be made – who can we say “no” to? If we say “no” will another panel firm put someone in? Is it an investment rather than a revenue stream, and if so, how do we calculate the return on that investment?

Competition for resource within firms, already fraught with politics in many cases, heightened.

The pressure on resources is made worse still when a secondee doesn’t return (not as sinister as it sounds!). Two common outcomes are that the secondee “goes native” and is simply recruited by the client. If the relationship with the law firm is financially material, the firm will have limited ability to negotiate any form of compensation, irrespective of terms in the engagement letter. The other alternative is that the secondee gets a taste for in-house life, and after returning to the law firm simply finds another job with a corporate legal team as quickly as possible.

Speaking from experience, while I had already decided that an in-house role  was probably the next move for me, three months I spent on secondment a year before I made that move did help to crystallise my thinking when the time was right to make the change.

Another challenge is for longer term secondments, how does the law firm effectively keep the connection with the secondee? I’ve seen this challenge at several levels – from the junior associate living out of a hotel for nine months, disconnected from her peers and far from her family, to the partner slowly becoming marginalised in the partnership and losing the emotional connection to the mothership.

Pros and cons.

Swings and roundabouts.

To my mind however the overall value equation is clear. If the engagement is structured well, the economics thought through and the fit between secondee skill set, personality and appetite with the in-house team’s culture and need is good, a secondment is a winner every time. The key is not to assume every secondment fits this model and to put the time in up front to get to a working relationship rather than to simply react and throw resource in at every opportunity that comes along.

Happy seconding.

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One response

22 09 2011
Jim Boeckman

Enjoyed this thoughtful post – a topic that I’ve been ruminating on as well – see http://www.right-tasking.com/blog/?p=1280.

Jim Boeckman

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