The lure of secondment overseas is a carrot dangled by many international law firms to entice the most talented trainees to their firm. But is a seat abroad merely a six-month jolly, or a genuine boost to your career? Kate Durcan spoke to TWVs (trainees with visas) to find out.
To be fair, there aren’t many graduate careers where just months into the job you’re relocated to uptown Manhattan, or sampling the hedonistic nightlife of the Far East. But if you’re considering a training contract with an international law firm, the chances of a seat abroad are high, thanks to the continued globalisation of legal services and a philosophy among firms that it’s never too early for young lawyers to begin networking.
Sarah Burson, graduate recruitment and development manager at Holman Fenwick Willan LLP, which tops the current Lex survey for international secondment opportunities (see box), says: ‘From a firm perspective, international secondments allow our trainees to develop a global perspective to the law. They also equip trainees with a better understanding of our international network, new contacts and an ability to cross sell across our geographies.’
A handful of firms, such as Holman Fenwick Willan LLP and White & Case LLP, actually guarantee all trainees an international secondment during their training contract, while others have limited secondments available and run an internal application process to decide who gets to travel. ‘All of our trainees complete a secondment to one of our international offices,’ continues Sarah. ‘We think that the availability of international secondments is a real USP of our training contract.’
It’s easy to see the appeal of an all-expenses paid, six-month trip to some glamorous and far-flung destination, but does it actually benefit your career? According to trainees who’ve been seconded, there are a host of benefits, both professional and personal. Number one is that you’ll be given greater responsibility and more challenging work while abroad, because you are likely to be one of just a few, if not the only, trainee in the office, and foreign offices themselves are usually smaller than in London.
Jean Renaldy is a second-year trainee at White & Case LLP and recently spent his third seat in the firm’s New York office working within the M&A team. He explains: ‘They don’t have the concept of trainees there, so you get associate-level work straight way, which is really interesting. I got to do things I wouldn’t have done in London, such as drafting sections of the SPA (Sale and Purchase Agreement) for example.’ He continues: ‘Deal teams tend to be smaller out there, just my supervisor, a mid-level associate and me, so I got great exposure to clients and work.’
At Holman Fenwick Willan LLP, recently-qualified dispute resolution solicitor Alex Andreou spent six months at the firm’s Dubai office during his training contract: ‘I got so much more experience and exposure to clients and matters than in London,’ he recalls. ‘When you arrive, it’s all go from day one – no one says, “you’re just a trainee, here’s basic work”. So it was refreshing.’
Another major benefit of international secondment is the boost to your confidence, both in terms of professional capability and the personal maturity that comes from living abroad by yourself for a length of time.
‘I came back feeling a lot more confident and sure of myself,’ reveals Jean. ‘If an associate tells me to do something, before I would just do it; but now, if I don’t agree, I am more confident to have my own opinion and will say so.’
Networking too, is one of the key advantages of secondment. The colleagues you meet, work and socialise with while overseas will never be forgotten, and throughout your career they will remain just a phone call away, which is a huge advantage when working on multijurisdictional legal matters. As a qualified solicitor, Alex is reaping the benefits of his time in Dubai, a location that often co-ordinates legal work involving neighbouring countries. He explains: ‘It is incredibly useful having contacts across the firm. I can comfortably pick up the phone to the Dubai office – it happened recently when I needed Egyptian advice and Jordanian advice. Being able to call them and get advice is invaluable.’
Name: Jean Renaldy
Firm: White & Case LLP
Degree: Law, Nottingham University
Current seat: fourth
Secondment: New York (M&A)
Travel mantra: ‘It’s definitely a really great learning experience, especially because you are not treated as a trainee.’
Passport to success
Whether or not a firm is able to offer an international secondment is basically down to number crunching: firms with large trainee intakes in London but just a handful of foreign offices will obviously have limited opportunities. At firms with a greater office-to-trainee ratio, there will be a higher chance of secondment, but of course, not all of a firm’s overseas destinations will be on offer to trainees.
Clyde & Co has 45 offices and associated offices worldwide and currently offers trainees secondments to Hong Kong, San Francisco, Dubai and Tanzania. Trainee Martin Plowden spoke to Lex direct from San Francisco, where he is half-way though his secondment there.
The history and Spanish graduate, who also did a Masters in American Studies, reveals that the opportunity for secondment was ‘one of my top-two reasons, even the top reason’ for joining the firm. ‘The fact that it offered international secondments and the amount of offices it had around the world really appealed to me,’ he says, ‘because I’ve always felt I’ve had an international focus. And the fact that the firm is expanding across the Americas made Clyde’s different to the other firms that do shipping and insurance, which mainly focus on the Middle East.’
Typically, secondment usually takes place during a trainee’s third or fourth seat, but Martin is still only in his second seat. He managed to convince the firm he was ready to go after completing the internal application process, comprising an interview and writing a business case for the secondment, setting out the skills he could offer the San Francisco team. ‘I thought San Francisco was the most interesting [of destinations on offer], and the office handles work I had previously learnt about, so it was my first choice,’ he says.
Martin is working in the area of cyber security insurance, a hugely relevant and burgeoning area of law, and a topic he was already familiar with, having researched the area while on a vac scheme with the firm in 2015. Three months into the secondment, is it living up to expectations? Martin reveals: ‘The team here is very hospitable and the work is exactly what I was hoping for; I’m given so much responsibility, for example drafting reports to clients and letters to policy holders – I’m given sole responsibility for this. I also have my own cases, even as a first-year trainee. My supervisor will check my work, but it is brilliant responsibility and great for my development and training. I get a lot of client contact too and I’m building contacts.’
Name: Martin Plowden
Firm: Clyde & Co
Degree: History and Spanish, Durham University
Current seat: second
Secondment: San Francisco (insurance and reinsurance: cyber security)
Travel mantra: ‘You may get a little homesick at the very beginning but you adapt and adjust. And the office has been so welcoming it has made the transition very easy – I won’t want to leave!’
Of course, it’s not all work and no play while on secondment. Despite the infamously-long hours of a New York M&A practice, Jean at White & Case LLP found time to fully explore the city and take full advantage of the perks made available to staff of the firm, including free entry to New York’s museums and galleries, for example. In Dubai, Holman Fenwick Willan LLP’s Alex was able to hook up with university friends and travel throughout the United Arab Emirates and neighbouring countries, such as Oman. And Martin at Clyde & Co is currently soaking up the Californian culture with team-building trips to the baseball and basketball, and visiting the stunning Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
On top of a trainee’s usual salary, many firms provide an additional allowance to help with living costs while away, and of course, accommodation is both located and paid for by firms. ‘The way it is set up for you is ridiculously good,’ notes Alex. ‘There is an apartment there ready for you to move into and you’re in the office the next day. It’s like your whole life changes overnight.’
‘The firm provides the accommodation and I feel so grateful,’ agrees Martin. ‘The human resources team identified an apartment for me to stay in and it’s in a really nice, uptown part of the city. San Francisco has just overtaken New York as the most expensive city to live in, it’s even dearer than London, but the firm covers it.’
Name: Alex Andreou
Firm: Holman Fenwick Willan LLP
Degree: History, St Andrews University
Qualified: September 2016, Shipping litigation
Secondment: Dubai (shipping and commodities litigation)
Travel mantra: ‘One of the most interesting aspects was that you got exposure to different legal cultures, for example, helping with criminal law matters in the UAE courts. It is completely different to the rule of law in the UK and it’s really interesting to experience a different approach.’
If you’re considering applying to an international firm and have aspirations to go on secondment, it helps if you can demonstrate an international awareness and convey your desire to work overseas when applying for your training contract. Recruiter Sarah at Holman Fenwick Willan explains: ‘Because all of our trainees complete an international secondment, we actively look for individuals who want to have a global career and who have an international outlook. This does not necessarily mean that they need to have lived or worked abroad before, but they must be enthusiastic about the possibility of spending time working overseas. Some of our trainees choose to qualify outside of London at the end of the training contract – into one of our international offices – and that is encouraged.’
Clyde & Co’s Martin has not yet completed his secondment and is already thinking about future opportunities with the firm overseas. ‘I would like to work abroad again,’ he admits. ‘I’ve always been internationally focused, that’s why I studied languages at university, and the firm’s most recent office opening is in Mexico, which is a really attractive proposition.’
Jean also refers to his international background and how that influenced his decision to join White & Case LLP, having been born in Indonesia and educated in Singapore, before doing his law degree at Nottingham University. In turn, his experience while on international secondment has helped determine which department he would like to qualify into this September: ‘I was fortunate enough to get an international secondment in M&A, and now I really want to do that. So, it has definitely been a really great learning experience.’
The merits of a secondment abroad are clear: trainees return from the experience feeling that they have so much more to offer their firms on qualification. In turn, firms benefit from more culturally aware, independent and confident young lawyers, who may even boast the beginnings of a network of overseas contacts.
‘I’d definitely recommend taking the opportunity whenever you could,’ sums up Alex. ‘Both professionally and personally it is an amazing experience.’
Lex Survey: International Secondment Winners
|Holman Fenwick Willan LLP||9.67|
|White & Case LLP||9.61|
|Watson Farley & Williams LLP||9.54|
|Sullivan & Cromwell LLP||9.32|
|Herbert Smith Freehills||9.22|
|Thomas Cooper LLP||9.17|
|Baker McKenzie LLP||8.97|
|Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP||8.88|
|Stephenson Harwood LLP||8.78|
|DLA Piper UK LLP||8.46|
|Norton Rose Fulbright||8.46|
|Morgan, Lewis & Bockius UK LLP||8.45|
|Latham & Watkins||8.20|
|Trowers & Hamlins LLP||8.18|
|Vinson & Elkins RLLP||7.89|
|Hogan Lovells International LLP||7.81|
|Shearman & Sterling (London) LLP||7.72|
|Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP||7.70|