Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Secondments: What is their real value?

Secondments: What is their real value?


Getting the focus of a secondment wrong can have a disastrous impact on both your secondee and your client relationship, warns Kathleen Heycock

Getting the focus of a secondment wrong can have a disastrous impact on both your secondee and your client relationship, warns Kathleen Heycock

Secondments are a relatively modern phenomenon and, as a result, very few senior partners have been on one. This is significant because those who are organising the secondments ought to have a good understanding of how they work in order to make the most of them.

Clients and law firms are missing a trick if secondments are just seen as a cheap way to get expertise or an 'easy give' as part of a pitch package. Their value goes far wider if a bit of thought is invested in advance. The most gratifying outcomes for law firms is a happy client and a secondee with increased confidence and honed commercial skills and knowledge.

Of course, there are the basic legal issues which always need to be covered in a proper secondment document and with good reason.

Charges and invoicing

  • Duties and scope so everyone knows what is expected of the employee and, importantly, what is not;

  • Liability for the work;

  • Confidentiality which gives comfort to the client that business secrets and information are protected;

  • Non-poaching of the secondee;

  • Non-poaching of client staff (to protect the client from having staff lured the other way);

  • Intellectual property;

  • Employees' terms and conditions and who is responsible for what;

  • Host policies. For example, the host may have IT policies that the secondee needs to see and agree to in advance; and

  • Termination. To have certainty on how, when, and why the arrangement can be terminated.

However, in order to have a successful secondment, there is much more to consider. My top tips for a successful secondment are to consider the following:

Aim of the secondment

  • Does the client need specific expertise or just an extra body on the ground? Ensure you send the right person;

  • Do you want to develop new relationships at the client, consolidate an existing relationship, or rectify a relationship problem? Make sure the secondee knows;

  • Are you bringing expertise to the client or wanting your secondee to develop new sector knowledge on the job? Be honest with the client; and

  • Is the client happy for your secondee to refer work back to your firm? If this is your hope, but the client's internal rules prevent this, then your may want to rethink the purpose of the secondment.


  • Talk to the secondee about the aims of the secondment and if there are any specific relationships to develop;

  • Research the client in advance as if this were a pitch; and

  • Ask the client how they like to work and how they want the secondee to provide advice (detailed written advice, summary emails, face to face meetings, telephone conferences)?

During the secondment

  • Keep in touch with the secondee and the client to nip any potential problems in the bud;

  • Use information the secondee gives you. Subject to confidentiality and any procurement rules, the secondee's knowledge of the client is invaluable for relationship building and providing tailored advice; and

  • If it isn't working, consider terminating or changing secondee. Not all secondments work. If it is going wrong, real damage could be done to your employee and/or your client relationship. Better to face up to this sooner rather than later and remedy it.

After the secondment

  • De-brief. The secondee will have a huge amount of useful knowledge about the client. Even simple matters such as 'so and so hates emails and responds much better to a phone call' can make a difference to a professional relationship. If they hated their time, you need to find out why;

  • Use their new commercial knowledge; and

  • Encourage them to maintain their relationships, even after their contacts have moved elsewhere. This can be the start of great professional contacts that reap rewards in years to come.

This all may sound obvious but preparation can be forgotten in the rush to provide an urgent secondee or on the routine changeover of an established secondee relationship. It is surprising the number of times a relatively junior employee is sent off with no guidance (often without even being asked if they want to go) and then, upon return, they are not listened to, despite having genuinely useful client relationship information.

Each secondment is unique and can lead to great things but each has the potential to go badly wrong if not managed properly.

Kathleen Heycock is a partner at Farrer & Co