Secondments solve a corporate law department’s temporary need for high-quality counsel to alleviate leaves of absence or significant increases in legal work. Traditionally, the secondee is a junior attorney who works on a narrow set of discrete matters. In these secondments, the client benefits from having a short-term need filled by an attorney at a fraction of the cost of the attorney’s hourly billable rate. Outside counsel benefits by having the junior attorney develop experience as corporate counsel with the hope of gaining greater visibility into the client’s needs.
My six-month secondment at a global consulting company challenges this traditional framework and provides a roadmap for other companies to consider when designing a secondment. The reimagined secondment experience is an opportunity for the secondee to gain a deeper understanding of the client’s broader legal strategy, tackle complex legal challenges, and transform the relationship between the client and outside counsel in a manner that extends well beyond the secondment.
Redesigning the traditional secondment
A few short months after joining Morrison Foerster (MoFo), I was made aware that a firm client was seeking a seasoned litigator to temporarily fill the role of a senior corporate counsel while she was on parental leave. While secondees are typically junior or mid-level associates, the company envisioned an experienced attorney with good judgment honed by years of practice that could lead complex multidistrict litigation and investigations. The company’s strategic approach in designing a secondment serves as a framework for other companies to consider as the legal landscape continues to evolve into a matrix of complicated, interconnected legal challenges. This redesigned secondment can benefit clients because it affords them the skilled counsel of a more experienced attorney who can get up to speed quickly and lead multiple complex matters. The law firm also benefits from investing in this type of secondment, despite the short-term loss of a senior attorney who may be leading matters for that client, and serves as an opportunity for the senior attorney to become fully immersed in the client’s culture and develop a deeper understanding of the client’s overall legal strategy.
The key to building this type of symbiotic secondment experience is trust. To bring a secondee onto the corporate counsel team to lead significant matters requires trust by the client in the competence and judgment of the secondee. It requires trust on behalf of the law firm in the secondee that she is capable of seamlessly integrating into a new environment, producing high-quality work product, and serving as a representative for the capabilities of the law firm. Finally, it requires trust on behalf of the secondee in both the client and the law firm that the secondment will be a growth opportunity in which the secondee will be supported by the law firm both during the secondment and in the transition back.
Benefits to redesigning the secondment
The culture at the global consulting company where I was seconded invites curiosity, cogent analysis, and critical thinking, all of which are pressure tested to produce consensus-driven solutions to challenging problems. Prior to starting the secondment, I had the benefit of shadowing the departing attorney for one month so I had a supported transition into the culture of the company. The shift between the law firm practice and in-house practice takes time and training, and is critical to the success of the secondment. As opposed to being siloed to handle discrete matter types, the team expended time and resources to ensure I was integrated into the fabric of the company. My secondment also included an education in the company’s broader global legal strategy and risk tolerance, a perspective I would not have otherwise gained as outside counsel or if my secondment was limited to a narrow set of topics.
The onboarding process included learning how the legal department functions and how the client’s business lines operate. This was particularly important at this specific company, as its corporate counsel serve dozens of client service teams and their senior partners, all of whom function like quasi-independent businesses. In interfacing daily with these client service teams, I learned how to skillfully manage and communicate with the company’s internal clients, an art form mastered by corporate counsel. Now that I am back at MoFo, I am more proficient in translating legal advice into a form that will be easily understood by the client and I can also anticipate potential questions, concerns, and reactions.
Structuring a secondment in a way that allows the secondee to become immersed in the client’s business, culture, and legal team provides a snapshot into the challenges faced by corporate counsel and the skills needed to effectively lead a complex docket. My secondment allowed me to appreciate the varied legal matters led by corporate counsel, and all of the internal work required to answer legal and factual questions posed by outside counsel. Unlike working at a law firm in which the attorney is typically the expert on a specific issue and seeks precise answers to legal questions, corporate counsel are leading strategy on a number of significant and complex global matters and must respond as quickly as possible to satisfy their internal clients and other stakeholders. In-house counsel must have a deep understanding of the overall legal strategy across work streams in order to make key, time-sensitive legal decisions that fit in with this broader legal strategy.
Perhaps the most meaningful benefit of my secondment was that it allowed me to develop relationships with corporate counsel beyond the traditional client and outside counsel relationship, resulting in a deeper, more meaningful partnership. This reimagined secondment experience invites opportunities for collaboration outside client service, including speaking together on panels, co-authoring articles, and co-teaching law school courses. By structuring a secondment where the secondee acts as an additional member of the corporate counsel team, solving the litany of day-to-day challenges clients face, the secondee is able to develop a deeper connection and rapport with corporate counsel. The benefits of this relationship flow equally to both the client and the law firm.
Creating a secondment experience that integrates a senior attorney into the corporate legal team to tackle complex legal matters across a broad cross-section of topics can result in a symbiosis between the client and the secondee that transcends filling a temporary need at a reduced cost to the client. By strategically designing a secondment to match the increasingly complex legal landscape, clients and outside counsel deepen their partnership and unlock the potential for exploring other opportunities for collaboration.
About the Author
Kate Driscoll is a member of Morrison Foerster’s Investigations + White Collar Defense Practice Group, and former Assistant United States Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. She recently served a six-month secondment with a global consulting company.