Going global: international secondments at Stephenson Harwood

Law exists on an international scale, and this is likely to increase in the future. In line with this, Stephenson Harwood has a strong focus on international secondments. Here, we take a closer look at why the firm values them so much.

  • Last updated Oct 9, 2018 10:59:46 AM
  • Article contributed by Stephenson Harwood
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The trainee perspective

Entering a law firm for the first time can already be a daunting experience. Working for that firm abroad while still a trainee may seem even more so. In fact, going on international secondment as a trainee is one of the best things you can do to set yourself up for a career in international law. You’ll develop professionally and personally, while receiving support from the firm.

“Being in the Seoul office currently, I can see how fee-earners from the various offices work together, both in business development activities and case management,” says Krystal Lee, a trainee at Stephenson Harwood. “For example, members of the ship finance team in Singapore closed a transaction with the assistance of our Seoul office, and the Hong Kong office organised an arbitration event with the joint collaboration of the Hong Kong, Singapore and London arbitration teams.”

It can be difficult to understand how different offices of an international law firm collaborate on various matters without having experienced this first-hand. “I think the experience has allowed me to understand that the provision of legal services in the international business world today is no longer purely black- letter law, if it has ever been the case,” she says. “Clients expect their legal advisers to be able to provide advice in the global financial and political context, and to be well-poised to deal with any upcoming trends, threats and opportunities.”

Working on an international, multi-jurisdictional level can also lead to more exciting work for trainees. “In my time with the Seoul office, I think one of the biggest highlights has been the team’s preparation for a major submission in a multi-hundred- million-dollar arbitration,” says Krystal. 

Ultimately, an international secondment is an incredible start to a career in law, which sets you up with many skills going forward. “Working abroad has taught me better communication skills, whether with clients, other members of the Stephenson Harwood team or with other members of the broader legal team, such as co-counsel from a local firm,” says Krystal. “I have also learned to be more adaptable as I become easily acclimatised to new working environments.”

Looking beyond London

Working for a City-based firm, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking about law purely in London-centric terms. Upon returning to London, many international secondees find themselves with a better understanding of how London fits into the global picture. Manon Sel, now an associate at Stephenson Harwood, completed a secondment in Paris. “I now understand some of the challenges and perceptions that international parties have when dealing with lawyers and law firms based in London,” she says. “Back in London, I better appreciate where these clients and counter- parties are coming from, and I have used this insight to build strong professional relationships and networks worldwide.”

Learning on the job in a new environment can bring about skills that can’t be taught at university. “I have developed a greater appreciation for the importance of understanding clients’ backgrounds and cultures in order to effectively serve their needs in the context of international business transactions and disputes,” says Krystal. Manon also highlighted the importance of this: “a cultural misunderstanding can jeopardise a deal”.

Being immersed in another culture is also a fantastic personal experience. Manon says: “It is important to remember that completing an international secondment is not all about work! My biggest highlight was exploring Paris and learning how to live like a true Parisian. I made sure I fully immersed myself in all that the city has to offer, with a particular focus on French patisserie and champagne!”

The partner perspective

It can be tempting to view an international secondment within the boundaries of your training contract, as a stand-alone component. In reality, training abroad will stay with you throughout your career, right the way up to partner level. Tom Platts, a Singapore- based partner at Stephenson Harwood, understands this well. Tom relocated to Singapore in 2011 while employed by a different international law firm. He was approached by Stephenson Harwood to help build the firm’s corporate profile across Asia.

“One of the things I’ve brought to the firm is a real passion for international secondments,” Tom says. “My experience convinced me of the immense value of spending time in a different office, and particularly the value of trainees doing so.”

Tom believes that an international secondment is valuable not just for its duration, but also going forward as a career asset. “The trainees at Stephenson Harwood who enjoy an international seat develop important additional skills: their cultural awareness increases, and they better understand how the legal systems of other jurisdictions operate.”

Lawyers at international law firms deal with international jurisdictions on a day-to-day basis. In practice, this means travelling abundantly to fulfil client needs, working in different time zones, understanding the differences between law in different parts of the world, getting to grips with how a client may operate overseas, and even understanding the basics of another language. Completing an international secondment is the best introduction to this way of working—it offers the dual experience of law abroad while carrying out work with overseas clients.

A global career

It’s easy to see why Stephenson Harwood places such a strong emphasis on international secondments. It’s important for the legal market, which is becoming increasingly internationally focused as time goes on. But first and foremost, it’s important for the lawyers themselves. “While your technical legal ability will undoubtedly be improved, the real value lies in the ‘softer’ skills you gain, such as the ability to be flexible and adapt to new environments; to build relationships with people from different backgrounds; to learn new languages; and to broaden your horizons,” says Manon.

If a career at Stephenson Harwood appeals to you, visit the firm’s profile.

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