International secondments: the lowdown

An international secondment is a critical part of many training contracts. On international secondment, the trainee is transferred to the offices of an overseas client (or in some cases a branch office of the same law firm) for a period of three to six months. Although international secondments are often highly sought after, the fact remains that some people dread them. There is no need for this.

  • Last updated Aug 29, 2019 3:42:36 PM
  • David Carnes

What an international secondment entails

Although an international secondment is nothing to be scared about, it can feel like being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool immediately after taking your first swimming lessons. You will be expected to undertake considerably more responsibility than you have ever taken before. You may find yourself handling a project on your own, reviewing contracts by yourself, giving advice to in-house legal staff, and making decisions that have a lasting impact on your client’s business.

Above all, you’ll be expected to apply the lofty academic principles that you’ve learned at university or in training to solve practical problems that make sense from both a legal and a business perspective. You’ll work closely with your clients, and you may even participate in negotiations with third parties. In other words, this is not likely to be easy—but it’s likely to be fun if you adopt the right attitude.

The benefits of doing an international secondment

Here are some tips that can help you make the most of your secondment experience: 

- Since international secondments typically involve much greater responsibility than would otherwise be permitted for a trainee, your opportunity to develop your skills will be correspondingly greater.

- International secondments offer a chance for you to start globalising your professional network right from the outset. If you’re eventually picked up as an associate by the firm that offered you a training contract, you’ll likely work with some of these people again.

- International secondments with clients of your firm can provide you with a solid grounding in the business realities that these particular clients face every day. This experience can greatly magnify your commercial awareness in the industry in which your client operates, to the benefit of both your career and your future clients.

- Successfully adapting to the radically different cultural environment of, say, Hong Kong can provide you with greatly-enhanced self-confidence at both the personal and professional level. It’s almost impossible to overestimate the value of this to every aspect of your life.

Tips for a successful secondment

You probably already know most of the standard advice that you’ll need to apply to ensure a successful experience. Following are some tips you may or may not have thought of:

- Research the client, its business and the language and culture of your destination well before you arrive. There’s no such thing as too much research—the more you understand before you go, the better you will adapt once you get there. If your firm has sent trainees to that client before, talk to them before you go and keep in touch with them after you leave.

- When it comes to linguistic and cultural differences, relax. If you’re sent to a location where English isn’t a native language, you probably won’t be expected to speak a word of that language during your secondment. Although a certain amount of “culture shock” is inevitable, and although cultural differences may lead to a few awkward moments from time to time, you’re likely to return home with a newfound adaptability that others will notice.

- Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Remember, it’s better to ask a stupid question than to make a stupid mistake. Adapting to an international work environment and the practical demands of your client inevitably involves a learning curve that you’ll navigate more successfully through aggressive involvement in your own training.

- If you enjoy expertise in a particular area, be on the lookout for opportunities to offer in-house training to the client’s legal staff. This is one of the best ways to raise your personal profile and build value for your firm.

- Get to know as many people as you can—this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Don’t be afraid to socialise after hours, and make sure to keep in touch with your new contacts after your return using social networking sites such as LinkedIn.

- Consider preparing a trainee secondment guide once you return to your office, if one doesn’t already exist. This will not only help you recap what you’ve learned, it will help the next generation of trainees, provide something of value that your firm will certainly appreciate and leave you with a lasting legacy.

Above all of these points, attitude is everything. The person most likely to make the most of their international secondment is the person who sees other people’s “problems” as his or her “challenges”. This simple change in perspective is what will make the difference for you. 

Next article: International secondments: the firm perspective

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