Secondments: A New Type of Legal Employment

I assume you are aware that we are now several years into an era of fundamental disruptions in the foundations of the law business.  Yet even as technology and other mega-forces drive this rapid and sometimes painful evolution, there are plenty of examples of innovation, progress and opportunity.

One shining area of positive growth is the “secondment” segment of the law services marketplace.  With increasing frequency, corporations and law firms are turning to secondment placement to fill knowledge or personnel gaps with high quality lawyers for short-term assignments. As a reflection of the overall employment marketplace as a whole, secondment is entirely consistent with the corporate shift toward more consultants/contractors and fewer employees.

For corporations, the rapid development of the secondment market is a welcome platform for maintaining high levels of performance within the corporate operation while controlling internal staff size.  The emergence of this business model has been particularly helpful for corporations who need a legal specialist, but don’t have the budget to hire one full time.  In-house legal teams also report that a secondee can leverage improved access to their outside law firm’s full range of resources.

Law firms are embracing secondments for essentially the same reasons as corporations do.  Beyond the prospect of tapping into specialty skills, law practices are also retaining the temporary services of a junior lawyer to perform routine work for large cases. As an extra bonus, the ability to search for “on demand” specialists – say intellectual property rights or health care – gives a small-to-midsized law firm to ability to take on a wider range of cases. Furthermore, clients are naturally predisposed to chose attorney firms that can tap into first hand knowledge of their particular business.

On the other side of the career coin, secondment placement can present  opportunities for attorneys with a wide range of experience levels and expectations. In particular, lawyers with who have had successful legal careers but have been downsized (or perhaps simply tired of workplace games) may use secondment as a re-entry point. Or they may simply be interested in controlling their own hours and income while leaving company politics behind.

The flexibility of the secondment concept opens the door to other scenarios as well. When lawyers who have spent time as successful secondees return to private practice, they usually discover they have developed a broader perspective as a result. With in-house experience at a secondment level on their resume, they are likely to be viewed as more qualified for work with corporate counsels. In general, the potential to expand one’s portfolio into more than one vertical business realm allows an attorney of any age to develop the kind of career agility the future (actually, the present) demands.

The secondment model is also ideally suited for mothers re-entering the legal market. The approprinate secondment strategy can accommodate women who are ready to go back to work full-time or who need to incorporate child-care into their daily plans. When the match is right, it is not uncommon for companies or law firms to hire their secondees as full time employees.

For law students as well, I recommend taking a look at a secondment placement as a place to start your career. While you have been in law school, the law business has transformed itself. And the transformation is continuing.  You will need to deploy a realistic balance in your attitude and expectations as you begin your career.  Consider looking at a secondment  as a first stepping stone into your future.