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Kate Brennan left her job as a fifth-year associate at Dewey & LeBoeuf in June for a post in the general counsel’s office at one of the law firm’s best clients. Four months later she was back. She wasn’t fired and she didn’t quit. Instead, Brennan’s departure and return were part of a secondment, an arrangement cooked up by the law firm, Brennan and the client, Ambac Assurance Corp. The idea was to staff the in-house counsel office with a bright associate who could go back to the firm after a few months with a better understanding of the client’s operations and needs. “It gave us a huge leg up,” Brennan said. Historically, a setup between London firms and their U.K. clients, secondments apparently are growing in popularity among U.S. law firms looking for ways to solidify relationships and distinguish themselves from competitors. The arrangements last from a few weeks to several months and provide law firms with a first-person perspective on clients. Many of the bigger law firms have at least a few secondments each year, especially those with international practices that send associates to European clients familiar with the arrangements. But law firms are looking to do more of them here and abroad. In addition, those firms that aren’t accustomed to the arrangements want in on the action, said Joel Henning, a consultant at Hildebrandt International who works with in-house counsel. “They’re anxious to try anything that could reinforce their relationships with their clients,” he said. Dewey & LeBoeuf attorney relations manager Susan Briggs said her firm is arranging secondments more often than it did in years past. It sends anywhere from five to 10 associates each year to clients, with engagements lasting from three to 18 months. Three years ago, it arranged two or three secondments each year. One reason for the increase is that the New York-based firm’s client base is more global, and secondments provide a way to enhance relationships between attorneys separated by oceans and continents, Briggs said. In addition, the firm, with its legions of associates, has the resources to provide its clients with the service. Duane Morris also has stepped up its secondment engagements, which include some with Clorox Co., Bayer Healthcare A.G. and IKON Office Solutions Inc. The arrangements became more common after the law firm’s merger with Hancock, Rothert & Bunshoft 2006. Hancock Rothert, an insurance coverage firm, had been arranging them for years, particularly with its overseas clients. Julie Choi Hawkinson, a seventh-year associate at Duane Morris, spent three months at Hiscox Ltd., a Lloyd’s of London insurance syndicate, where she worked on directors and officers liability claims. She said her assignment in London not only helped her understand the business side of the insurer, but also put her in the center of an international insurance market. “It would’ve been nice to stay longer,” she said. “The firm could’ve have benefited even more.” One eye-opener for Vinson & Elkins associate Sherry Scott, a secondee at Shell Oil Co. for six months, was the multitasking that working as in-house counsel required. Now an eighth-year associate, Scott also learned that law firms sometimes get it wrong in trying to woo clients, information she could take back to her firm. “Being an in-house attorney doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be wined and dined by outside counsel,” she said. “They like to enjoy their spare time with family and friends. I learned that you should respect their nonworking time and try to tailor business development events to their preferences, especially if they have children.” Focusing on commercial litigation, she also received some lessons in timing that she could pass on to her firm. With discovery requests, she realized that gathering information usually takes much longer than outside counsel expects. “If you’ve got a deadline, get the request to your client as soon as you can,” she said. Law firms usually arrange secondments based on a client’s specific circumstances. The temporary leave of a law department attorney, or a particular transaction or case, may prompt a client to rely on an outside firm to fill the gap. The vast majority of secondments involve associates rather than partners, since firms are hesitant to hand over a seasoned lawyer to focus on one particular client. Generally, the law firm continues to pay the associate, with the client sometimes providing housing or a set stipend to cover expenses. IKON Office Solutions General Counsel Mark Hershey has brought on board five Duane Morris associates on a fixed-fee basis. His employer likes the budgeting certainty, as opposed to the hourly billing that the arrangement provides. And he likes having a cadre of secondees who return to the firm with intimate knowledge of the company’s operations. “Whenever I’ve got any litigation matters, I’ve got five people who’ve lived with us and know us very well,” Hershey said. One risk of secondments is a bad match between associate and client, said Hildebrandt’s Henning. But the risk is low, he said, because the secondee has usually worked before with the client. Conflicts of interest are also an issue with secondments. Ethics rules in general prevent seconded lawyers from representing the clients in litigation and transactions that are against the interests of the firms’ other clients. And ethics rules impute to the law firm any confidential information from the client that can be adverse to the firm’s other clients. Thus, firms check for conflicts of interest and establish firewalls so the associate doesn’t get information that could taint the firm. For Scott, that meant sitting out of some of Shell’s meetings. Law firms also run the risk that their talented associates will decide to stay with the client. Yet if an associate does make a permanent move, it can give the firm a tighter connection to the client. Such an outcome is “usually a good thing,” said Jim Quinn, global litigation co-chairman at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “It’s a trade,” he said. The New York-based firm typically provides secondments only for “longstanding, favored clients,” he said. Quinn said he expects to see more secondments in light of an economic downturn, which could force law departments to tighten their budgets and look to outside counsel for staffing relief.

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