Client secondments are an invaluable opportunity. As well as giving you direct exposure to clients, they are a great way to improve your commerciality, breadth of legal experience, and CV firepower.
So, whilst the virtues of undertaking a client secondment are easy to explain, what are client secondments actually like? Whilst there are many common threads to working in an in-house legal team, the answer to this question very much depends on the client to which you are seconded.
Below, I share a few of my key learnings from my time on secondment at two major automotive companies, Volkswagen Group UK and Nissan Motor Co (Japan).
In-house is very different from private practice…
In the simplest terms, you go from working in private practice, in a position of being able to put a piece of work under the microscope (perhaps having an entire day to review, amend, or draft an agreement) to one where you consistently work on many different pieces in the same day. Whilst the increase in workload and time pressure can be intimidating at first, personally speaking, this has really helped my ability to assess and balance workload, and better communicate with my colleagues and the business in the long run.
Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of client interaction
Because you are exposed to the client on a daily basis – quite literally in the fact that someone in the business may come to your desk with a random legal query! – you are effectively seen as part of the legal team rather than as an external legal advisor.
The virtue of this is that, almost without you realising it, you become more comfortable with the basic skills of being a lawyer such as client interaction, taking instructions, asking the right questions, and expectation management as to what a realistic outcome is for a piece of work.
A wide variety of work
Being seconded to a large business carries with it a variety of work that would, if it were carried out in private practice, likely cover several teams or departments. Some examples of the type of work I was fortunate enough to get involved in include:
- Negotiating celebrity sponsorship agreements;
- Advising on multi-million-pound supplier agreements;
- Drafting terms for nationwide competitions, prize-draws, and customer loyalty programmes;
- Negotiating an agreement for the cross-border supply of cutting-edge virtual reality technology; and
- Advising all areas of the client’s business on data protection compliance matters – this also included correspondence with regulators.
A commercial perspective
Something that you learn quickly on secondment is the risk profile of the client (i.e. which areas are of concern to them at a particular time). This risk profile, in effect, determines (a) where you attribute more of your time and focus, and (b) what warrants the expense of external advice. This ability to look at things from a ‘big-picture’ perspective is not necessarily something that is otherwise gained on your training contract.
Make the most of it
Overall, my top tips for client secondments are…
- If the opportunity is there, take it!
- Don’t go in with any pre-conceptions and learn to bend with the wind – some things are just outside of your control. All clients are different, and they will each have different internal processes
- Be open and be yourself. Treat the members of the business as though they were your colleagues but, at the same time, always be conscious of the bigger picture – you are there on behalf of your firm and they are a client. If the opportunity affords it, actively try to get involved in as wide a variety of work as possible. This will help develop your legal knowledge whilst, at the same time, giving you a clearer picture of the client as a whole and their differing risk appetites
- Forget everything you think you know. Notwithstanding the massive cliché that comes with this tip, it is important to not be too rigid in your approach to your work (i.e. relying on what you have previously been told is the position in relation to a certain topic). There are a whole host of issues that come into business decision making, not just legal risk, and there is often more than one way to achieve the same outcome. Whilst a secondment may not help you hone your technical skills, it is a fantastic opportunity to gain a valuable commercial perspective to your work.