Secondments have benefits both for associates’ careers and for relationships between the lawyer’s firm and its clients.
When Sylvia De Angelis put up her hand and spoke out at a meeting with the managing partner of her law firm, she had no idea where it would take her career. At the time, she was a fourth-year associate in the Calgary office of Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, and was the only one at the meeting willing to say why some associates were less than thrilled with their experience at the firm.
After the meeting, the managing partner called her aside. She thought she was about to be disciplined or possibly even let go, but instead he told her he appreciated her candour. Then, to her surprise, he asked her if she was interested in spending some time working closely with one of the firm’s clients. De Angelis’ response was, “Why not?” And suddenly she found herself as the whole legal department for the oil sands technology company Value Creation Inc., as it went through a period of massive growth. De Angelis had been seconded.
Still considered an associate with Gowlings, she now has just one client, but one where she was responsible for all its in-house work. An experience she describes as a “tremendous opportunity.”
Secondments come in as many different forms as there are clients and lawyers. Lasting from as little as two months up to lengths like that of De Angelis’ secondment, which is coming up on two years. They come in the form of working with anything from government departments to non-profit organizations to major corporations. The options vary widely, but what all secondments share is the need to leave your law firm temporarily and work in-house with a client. And for an associate, they provide a fresh perspective on how the law looks from a client’s point of view.
The type of work you’ll do on a secondment largely depends on the client’s needs. For instance, one organization that regularly seconds lawyers is the Ontario Securities Commission. According to Gayle Fisher, chief human resources officer for the OSC, sometimes it’s as simple as needing someone to backfill a parental leave. A secondment like this would carry with it a variety of tasks, depending on the day-to-day needs of the commission. In other cases the OSC is looking for specific help on policy development and lawyers are brought in to help with that one project.
For some associates, a secondment is a chance to see life as an in-house counsel for a corporation. Andrew McFarlane is a fifth-year associate with Stewart McKelvey in Halifax. He spent four months at Clark Inc., a Halifax-based company operating mainly in the transportation business, while it underwent what he describes as “a bit of a transition.” While there, he worked alongside the firm’s senior executives on the company’s financial issues and securities transactions.
Christine Kilby, a first-year litigation associate with Ogilvy Renault LLP in Toronto, has been on two secondments. On her first, at General Motors Canada, Kilby spent the majority of her time researching files, dealing with human rights complaints, and even appearing in small claims court representing GM. In her second, Kilby worked for Toronto Community Housing, where she handled her own files, represented TCH in front of the Landlord and Tenant Board, and appeared in court for one case. As she puts it, “When you’re in-house counsel you’re dealing with everything, big and small.”
Not every secondment is such a general experience though. Dave Wright, a first-year associate at Stewart McKelvey, is currently seconded to the federal auditor general’s Halifax office. There, he’s part of an audit team looking at “habitat protection and pollution prevention” under the Fisheries Act, which gives him a chance to “build capacity and specific knowledge” as he works on how the government is succeeding in upholding two specific sections of the Fisheries Act.
In either situation, as specialist or generalist, one feature of secondments is that the associates feel like they’re playing a role in the business of the organization. De Angelis, for instance, came to Value Creation as its only dedicated lawyer, and suddenly found herself participating in decision-making that in a law firm wouldn’t happen until she became a partner.
While the senior management was out of town looking for investors, it was De Angelis who was charged with, as she puts it, “keeping the home fires burning,” and preparing documents for the team on the road. One big responsibility was taking long documents and distilling them down. She says it felt like “tremendous flattery that they would trust me to recognize what’s important.” Not that it’s always comfortable. McFarlane warns, “It might be scary at the beginning, if you’re not used to dealing with clients. You might be the one left to make a decision.” But he believes this is one of the strengths of secondment: you get to “push yourself out of your comfort zone,” he says.
Whether it’s working as an all-around lawyer or as a regulatory specialist, going on a secondment allows an associate to experience legal work in a very different way than at a law firm. Kilby, during her time in-house with GM, discovered that “media articles [about the company] become much more visible, because you care about the company.”
For McFarlane, at Clark Inc., one large difference was the company of the people he worked with. “In-firm you’re working with other lawyers, but in a company it’s broadening your experience. Here, you’re sharing offices with CEOs and CFOs.” This, he says, “opens your eyes to behind the scenes.” Wright agrees: “I’m learning an area of law but also from an outside perspective. In the office it’s nearly 100 per cent accountants, so I get to interact across disciplinary lines. I can see how different cultures work.”
This isn’t just about the big picture either. “A secondment allows a lawyer to see the business side of the story. For instance, when you write a memo, what happens when it gets to the client,” De Angelis points out. Secondments allow an associate to see directly the results of memo writing. And, depending on where you’re working, you might move from purely legal issues into related topics.
At one point, De Angelis found herself managing the company’s data room. That might not seem particularly close to the law, but, since De Angelis also had control over what information was being given to potential investors, looking after the data made a lot of corporate sense. And it meant De Angelis, like the other associates working in business, would come away with a better sense of what happens once her legal advice leaves the firm and goes out into the world.
This difference in perspective is appreciated by the law firms when the associates return. Michelle Gage, the director of student and associate programs at Ogilvy Renault, says one reason her firm supports secondments is it “opens [the associate’s] eyes to the client’s perspective,” and that this, in general, “makes our lawyers better lawyers.” John Rogers, the CEO of Stewart McKelvey, thinks secondments are a valuable part of the associate experience. “Whenever you can step into someone else’s shoes,” he says, “and see life from the other side, it provides a better perspective.” He adds it also “builds skills and relationships that allow an associate to move ahead.”
The clients benefit as well from what lawyers learn when they’re seconded. Fisher of the OSC says, “Bringing someone in from a law firm allows them to understand what we do and why we do it.” She feels the experience lawyers get with the organization means they have “an educated consumer going back; it builds a bridge.” But it isn’t all one-sided. Fisher says one advantage associates bring is “fresh ideas and the latest ideas.” As well, when they’re coming in to work on a specific project, they bring a new concentration and enthusiasm, which may be exactly what the project needs.
The ways in which one secures a secondment are almost as varied as the secondment experience. According to Rogers, most of Stewart McKelvey’s associate secondments are initiated by the client. “Usually there’s some change in personnel in the legal department,” he says, “or they need assistance for a short-term or significant project.”
Other firms have more formal programs. At Ogilvy Renault, articling students have the chance to take two-month rotations to one of the firm’s clients. That’s how Kilby ended up at General Motors. With these types of secondments, typically the business manager or associate manager at the firm will approach an associate that he or she feels will fit well with the client.
But not every secondment is initiated by the firm. Wright’s secondment with the auditor general came about thanks to his continued contact with a professor from law school. The auditor general’s office had approached the professor looking for someone to come and work with its staff — and Wright’s name came up.
At that point, it was up to him to sell the secondment to the firm. “I had to pitch the experience,” he says, “trying to figure out how it would benefit my future practice and the firm.” He was successful and is now about halfway through what he considers a great opportunity to build his knowledge in an area he hopes will be central to his future career.
Relevance to the future should be a major consideration if you’re thinking about taking a secondment offer. De Angelis recommends asking yourself, “Where does this fit into my career strategy?” McFarlane echoes this sentiment and suggests asking yourself, “Is this an area I want to focus in? Is this position a good fit?”
There’s also the question of fitting in with the client. Another issue both De Angelis and McFarlane suggest raising before going on secondment is who will you actually be working with. Like moving to any new job, it’s important to get a sense of where you’re going and whether you think it’s a place you’ll be happy working. Making expectations clear is also very helpful.
This goes back to whether it fits into your overall career plan. De Angelis had been working mostly with small businesses before going to Value Creation Inc.; after her arrival there, she was working on deals that involved investment bankers and, as she puts it, “big business.” From her perspective, it expanded her range, making her more attractive to future clients.
The third big consideration is your career within the law firm. Wright suggests a frank discussion with the business manager or managing partner asking, “How will the secondment affect my access to internal sources when I come back?”
In De Angelis’ case, she was already a fourth-year associate with a number of her own clients. She says the transition had to be handled carefully. “When I went on secondment, I had to transition to a new office, which meant wrapping up my business, making arrangements for ongoing files, and contacting my key clients. Because of the length of the secondment, I had to give up my practice.”
And once you’re on secondment, it can take time to settle in. Kilby has specific advice for anyone starting out a placement. “Be patient,” she says. “It can take a while for the work to build up. And keep an open mind. You’ll be asked to do a variety of things — some you’re not used to.” De Angelis found in her experience that the first part of her work involved learning everything she could about the company. Like McFarlane, she found it took time for people to notice she was there and available to offer legal advice.
At some point, every secondment comes to an end. While it might seem that stepping out of the firm for a few months could take you out of the loop, that doesn’t seem to be the reality. For Kilby, returning to Ogilvy Renault was “fairly seamless,” and McFarlane didn’t run into any problems when he went back to Stewart McKelvey either. But those were both relatively short secondments.
With De Angelis close to two years into her secondment, she does have some concerns. “I am worried I’m becoming too narrow too soon,” she says. “I do see the potential for this work to lead to great things, but I don’t have a broad enough experience to be a general counsel.” But at the end of her secondment, she’s hoping the contacts she built up in industry will allow her to rapidly rebuild her practice.
That’s the experience of David Henley, a partner at Stewart McKelvey who did two secondments while still a junior associate. Once he returned to the firm, he says, he had “a substantial volume of work from outside the firm.”
In fact, Henley believes his secondments played an important role in fast-tracking him to partner. “The work is more comprehensive,” he says. “In a firm, junior [associates] only handle small pieces of the pie, but on secondment you handle the entire transaction entirely on your own.” This “accelerated” his development and now he has work from these clients on a regular basis. While most associates at Stewart McKelvey take seven years to become partners, for Henley it was only five. “The partners recognized I had a little more experience."
De Angelis is hoping her two years with Value Creation will have a similar effect. “I don’t want to blow my own horn,” she says, “but [compared to other associates] I really blow them out of the water. As an associate, you get shuffled into a practice group, but you don’t get to know about offline negotiations.” Her experience with all the other aspects of business will, she believes, increase her value to the firm when she goes back.
Secondments can help with career development even if partnership isn’t your goal. “I didn’t have to quit [the firm] to find out about an in-house gig,” says De Angelis. And it makes contacts that could become useful down the road. “An interesting thing,” says Peggy Dowdall-Logie, the executive director of the OSC, “is that two of our vice chairs and three or four of our directors are former seconds. These are people who were seconded as long as 20 years ago, but now they’re back.”
Lawyers who’ve been on secondment seem to be universally positive. “It’s been a tremendous experience,” says De Angelis.
“If it’s the right fit,” says McFarlane, “absolutely do it!” Wright has no regrets. “It’s met my expectations and beyond,” he says.
So, as Christine Kilby puts it, “have fun, and take every opportunity that you can!” If it’s planned well, a secondment can be a great addition to a legal career.