Flex time: the pros of secondments and implementing them successfully

March image (ME)Although we are primarily known for our traditional search work (since 1997), Evers Legal is now in its third year of also providing secondment services for our law department clients. We have enjoyed several successes, learned from a few mistakes, and now I feel ready to write with some confidence on how best to incorporate “flex-talent” into your law department.

But first, I wish to thank our clients who said “yes” to this service early in the roll-out, my friends at companies such as CNH, Exelon, Tenneco, CareerBuilder, DeVry and others. Your trust in our ability to get it right humbles me.

Secondment pros:

  • Headcount flexibility
  • Cost savings
  • Unburdening of current resources
  • The ability to “test drive” talent in those situations where direct hire down the road is an option

Secondment cons:

  • Legal departments are limited to the pool of attorneys who are not currently in traditional jobs
  • The ongoing risk that someone good on a secondment will leave for another opportunity before the assignment ends

The essential ingredient to mitigate against both cons is money. What I call “Goldilocks” pricing is the No. 1 key to a successful secondment. You truly get what you pay for, and so “buyer beware” when you bring someone in at document review shop rates. The porridge is too cold. At the same time, I understand there is a price at which it makes more sense to simply use outside counsel. Even the firm that remade this market, Axiom, is pricing itself out of a lot of work. The porridge is too hot.

I believe in transparency. Our billing rates, when hourly, are most commonly in the $90 to $140 range. Our fixed fee quotes for full-time secondments skew a bit lower and include variables like paid vacations and sick days. The corresponding attorney compensation, net of costs and our profit margin, annualize in the $130,000 to $180,000 neighborhood. Our experience tells us that this is the level at which the best available flex talent will come on-board and it’s the level at which assignment loyalty happens.

Beyond getting the money right, there is one main thing you can do that will maximize the performance of any secondee. Embrace the secondee as a regular member of the team; include her in department meetings and less formal water cooler situations. I cannot stress enough the positive impact this has on performance. We are talking about smart, prideful attorneys here, and so maintaining a proverbial one class cabin approach helps.

You should review and comment on the secondee’s work-product as soon as possible. If the thought “Houston, we have a problem” enters your head, then let’s make a fix immediately. Although we have only had one underperforming secondee thus far (a great track record!), we learned our lesson on how to handle it next time, and at some point there will be a next time. Along with a very kind client, we kept the secondee in place and went the route of second and third chances because the attorney at issue is nice and no one wanted to let him go. That was a mistake. No matter how nice the person is, cut bait on an underperforming secondee as soon as possible. If it’s through us, we’ll get a replacement in fast and issue a credit for the transition inconvenience.

Finally, as with all human relationships, successful secondments work best when expectations are properly aligned and managed. Be candid about future direct hire opportunities, or lack thereof. No carrot required, as the best secondees are very self-motivated. Some in fact do not actually want traditional employment, embracing instead the freedom that comes from picking and choosing assignments.

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