This chapter summarises the key issues a firm should consider in relation to secondments, taking into account the needs of both the firm and the community legal organisation or not-for-profit (‘NFP’) with which it partners (host organisation).
More information about secondments and detailed case studies are contained in What Works, Chapter 22 Secondments.
- 2.3.1 Benefits of secondments
- 2.3.2 Duration of a secondment
- 2.3.3 Recruitment of secondees
- 2.3.4 Experience of seconded lawyers
- 2.3.5 Supervision, training, support & recognition
- 2.3.6 Secondment agreements
- 2.3.7 Post-secondment opportunities
2.3.1 BENEFITS OF SECONDMENTS
Many firms find secondments to be an effective and rewarding pro bono model. Secondments may be full-time, part-time, fixed-term, open-ended, sessional or project-based. The results of the Centre’s 2020 National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey showed that an increasing number of firms are offering secondments as a way of providing pro bono assistance, with 26 of the 38 respondent firms (68.4 per cent) reporting that they had provided secondments in the 2020 financial year. 
Secondees often develop skills and maturity through the secondment experience, while developing key connections with the host organisation. The firm also benefits from having seconded lawyers bringing back enhanced legal, communication and managerial skills to the firm, in addition to specific subject matter knowledge from practising in an otherwise unfamiliar area.
For firms that are finding it difficult to source and manage appropriate individual pro bono matters, secondments can be an easier way to make a pro bono contribution, especially since host organisations will have already identified the unmet legal need. However, relying on secondments may mean that participation in pro bono legal work is not widely spread across the firm.
As well as having an additional person to help address unmet legal need, the host organisation can also benefit from the secondee’s ‘phone a friend’ network of contacts and knowledge gained from working at a corporate law firm. In addition to providing front line support, the secondee can also provide a fresh set of eyes on the host organisation’s internal processes and strategy and offer suggestions for improvement appropriate for the host organisation.
2.3.2 DURATION OF A SECONDMENT
Secondments may be:
- full-time or part-time and for a fixed period (for example, for three, six, or 12 months). A fixed period secondment may be part of a single firm or multi-firm rotation that ensures that a secondee is always available to the host organisation;
- sessional (for example, a lawyer attends a host organisation to operate an advice clinic one afternoon each week);
- short-term locums to cover a staff shortage; or
- specific secondments (for example, for the period of a particular project or initiative of a host organisation).
It is important to ensure that the period and frequency of the secondment matches the needs of the host organisation.
A firm’s size is another relevant factor. Small firms will have fewer lawyers and resources to spare, while large and mid-sized firms may be able to provide lawyers for longer periods. There is a trade-off between shorter secondments, which allow more lawyers from firms to participate in secondments, and longer secondments, which are usually more beneficial to the host organisation.
Firms may also need to consider associated costs of a secondment. If a firm maintains a pro bono budget, then any costs will not affect other parts of the business. However if the budget is combined with, for example, a Corporate Social Responsibility budget, then the firm will need to take that into consideration with regards to the type and duration of a pro bono secondment.
The host organisations consulted for What Works, Chapter 22 Secondments unanimously preferred having full-time secondees, but recognised that due to the resource constraints of pro bono providers, this was not always possible. For part-time secondments, the particular days of the secondment should also be considered. For example, many lawyers who have been seconded have indicated a preference for the secondment days to be in blocks, rather than say a Monday-Wednesday-Friday for a three day secondment.
A short-term or sessional secondment can be very successful if the appropriate lawyer is seconded to the right project. For example, all lawyers at Herbert Smith Freehills’ Perth office undertake a two-week full-time secondment at Sussex Street Community Law Service in their post-admission year. The secondment works because there is appropriate legal work available for the secondees and the manager spends one hour a fortnight supervising the handover between the secondees.
It is also important to ensure that secondees are not a drain on the host organisation’s resources. This can happen, for example, where junior lawyers attend a clinic sporadically and don’t have enough exposure to learn how to do tasks effectively.
2.3.3 RECRUITMENT OF SECONDEES
Selecting the best person for the secondment is vital to its success. Ideally the secondee should be a lawyer who is motivated to do the secondment, senior enough or competent enough to need little training, and whose interests, skills and experience match the organisation’s needs.
In selecting the secondee, it is not only legal skills that need to be taken into account, but also the secondee’s interest in social justice and, where they may need to be involved in direct client work, the ability to deal with people experiencing social and economic disadvantage.
Eliciting interest in secondment opportunities may involve internally promoting the secondment using channels such as the firm’s intranet, email broadcasts or individual messages, newsletters, bulletin boards and presentations at firm functions, as well as including information in induction materials for lawyers joining the firm. Ideally, lawyers will effectively self-select for available secondment positions. However, firms should advertise the availability of secondment positions to lawyers at the appropriate levels within the firm.
2.3.4 EXPERIENCE OF SECONDED LAWYERS
Some firms prefer having junior lawyers on secondment due to their concern about maintaining senior expertise within the firm.
However, in considering the suitable level of seniority for a secondment, the firm should ensure that the lawyer is sufficiently experienced and competent to manage the placement. An under-performing secondee can be disastrous for the host organisation, the reputation of the firm, and its pro bono practice.
Seconding more senior lawyers can work well because, while they have less available time, they have the expertise to contribute a great deal within that time. In addition, senior lawyers often require less training and supervision, and so on short-term and sessional secondments they create less work for the host organisation.
2.3.5 SUPERVISION, TRAINING, SUPPORT AND RECOGNITION
Effective supervision, training and support for secondees is essential to the success of the secondment and may involve regular feedback from secondees, opportunities to extend their skills, and recognition for their work. This is particularly important if secondees are working in an area in which they have little or no experience.
Supervision of secondees is important to ensure that they are contributing positively to the capacity of their host organisation, rather than being a drain on resources. A well supervised secondment is a fantastic opportunity to develop the skills of the lawyer on secondment that will benefit the firm on their return.
While secondees’ time and the details of the work they do will generally be recorded, monitored and supervised by the firm while they are on secondment, their work will usually be directly supervised by the host organisation’s solicitors. The secondment agreement should set out the supervision arrangements. It is also important to check the remote supervision requirements of the Law Society of which the secondee is a member if some or all of the secondment will be remotely supervised by the host organisation. For example, as at September 2022, the Law Society of Victoria required approval to be sought in advance if a lawyer with a restricted practicing certificate was supervised by someone in a different location or law practice.
It is helpful if both the secondee and the host organisation maintain contact with the firm about how the secondment is going, to provide opportunities for the host organisation to alert the firm to any issues with the secondment. Secondees should also be encouraged to monitor firm emails during the secondment, to help maintain their connection to their work and team at the firm.
Some secondment arrangements integrate the host organisation’s performance management of secondees with the performance processes of the firm. At the very least, the pro bono manager should touch base on a regular basis, and debrief with both the secondee and the supervisor at the host organisation once the secondment has been completed.
TRAINING AND SUPPORT
Training is often provided to secondees by the host organisation, or the firm, or a combination of both. When secondees are placed on a rotational basis, one option is to arrange for an outgoing or past secondee to provide some training to the new secondee.
Much of the support for secondees may come from the host organisation, particularly regarding working with people who are experiencing disadvantage. They may also benefit from access to counselling services, for example, where they are not used to dealing with people in extreme distress. However, it will also be in both the secondee’s and the firm’s interests that mechanisms are in place to ensure that the secondee maintains an ongoing relationship with the firm during the secondment. The host organisation also benefits from the network of ‘phone a friend’ resources that the secondee brings with them from the firm.
CREDIT AND RECOGNITION
Seconded lawyers should receive credit and recognition for work performed on secondment and not be penalised or disadvantaged in terms of performance appraisals or future advancements. Pro bono legal work done on secondment should be treated in the same way and with the same credit for the time spent as any other work undertaken by the lawyer for the firm.
Linking the development plan for the secondment with the secondee’s regular performance review system is a good way to ensure that the work they do at the host organisation is recognised at their firm, and that any performance issues are addressed to minimise the impact on the host organisation.
Additionally, firms should consider recognising the efforts of the secondee by publicising their work internally or externally.
2.3.6 SECONDMENT AGREEMENTS
If a lawyer is to go on secondment to a community legal centre (‘CLC’) or pro bono client a secondment agreement should be reached detailing the terms of the arrangement. Formalising the secondment arrangement and parties’ responsibilities in an agreement, typically between the firm, the host organisation and the secondee, will minimise the risk of problems arising from misunderstandings.
Issues commonly addressed in secondment agreements include:
- duration of placement, and on what basis (for example, long-term, short-term or sessional);
- responsibilities of the parties;
- training and supervision — what is required, who will provide it and when;
- performance appraisal of the secondee;
- work hours, leave provisions and other entitlements of the secondee;
- supervision of the secondee’s work;
- communication with the firm during secondment;
- whether all work is to be done under the auspices of the host organisation, and who bears the risk;
- confidentiality — in some circumstances it may be appropriate for the host organisation to require the secondee and/or firm to sign an agreement to ensure the confidentiality of any information acquired during the course of the secondment;
- copyright – as the use of firm precedents by the secondee, or the creation of new precedents for the host organisation, is not uncommon during the secondment, conflicts of interest — mechanisms should be in place so that any identified conflict, where a secondee’s work at a host organisation relates to matters or clients with which the firm may be involved, is drawn to the attention of both the firm and the organisation. Some firms supply the secondee with a list of the firm’s major clients so that the secondee can be aware of potential conflicts;
- secondee’s remuneration and other expenses — as the secondee will remain an employee of their firm, their salaries and on-costs (superannuation, relevant workcover, annual leave, sick leave and other entitlements and benefits) are met by the firm;
- workplace health and safety obligations;
- professional indemnity insurance — the host organisation will normally be responsible for the work performed by the secondee and their professional indemnity insurance;
- administrative and other costs — if secondment practices are being expanded and encouraged, involving extra work for the community organisation, firms should consider assisting this expansion by providing support for any additional staff, resources, capital equipment and training needs; and
- termination of the secondment arrangement.
Secondment agreement precedents are provided in Appendix 1 Precedents of this Manual.
2.3.7 POST-SECONDMENT OPPORTUNITIES
Successful secondments can help to strengthen the relationships between the seconded lawyers, the firm, and the host organisation. They have the potential to lead to other kinds of pro bono opportunities that are beneficial to all parties.
Lawyers who have undertaken secondments are usually keen to continue their involvement in pro bono legal work. Taking steps to identify opportunities to do so helps ensure their continuing job satisfaction at the firm.
Ways in which a firm can continue to develop its relationship with the host organisation, and create opportunities for the secondee to stay engaged in pro bono legal work at the firm, include:
- providing the secondee with the opportunity to attend the host organisation on a casual basis, and ideally with fully credited time;
- identifying opportunities for doing additional kinds of pro bono legal work with the organisation (for example, establishing a mentoring relationship between the former secondee and the host organisation): see What Works, Chapter 25 ‘Secondary consults’ or ‘phone a friend’ assistance; and
- encouraging pro bono referrals from the host organisation to the firm, using the secondee’s familiarity with the organisation’s client base to increase the quantity and quality of referrals.
In addition to pro bono legal assistance, the firm may explore the possibility of providing other kinds of assistance such as becoming a member of the host organisation’s management committee or providing administrative, library or subscription support. For more information see What Works, Chapter 30 Non-legal assistance.
This chapter was reviewed in 2022 by the Australian Pro Bono Centre and the pro bono team at Norton Rose Fulbright, headed by Chris Owen. The Centre acknowledges and is grateful for the generous contributions of all those who assisted with the 2022 refresh of the Australian Pro Bono Manual.
Australian Pro Bono Centre, Report on the 7th National Law Firm Pro Bono Survey: Australian firms with 50 or more lawyers (Report, February 2021) 58 <https://www.probonocentre.org.au/information-on-pro-bono/survey/>.
 See Australian Pro Bono Centre, ‘Client management & self-care’, Information on Pro Bono (Web Page) <https://www.probonocentre.org.au/information-on-pro-bono/client-management-self-care/>.