Second nature

August 2, 2014

Why are Macfarlanes so keen on secondments?

Photo: Macfarlanes

 

For a firm with no formal international network, Macfarlanes’ reception is a defiantly cosmopolitan space. On one table, there’s a copy of the works of Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado; on another, a book on the ‘Wild Wonders of Europe’; a third is a resting place for Don McCullin’s photographic essays on Africa. The office might be physically located within whistling distance of Lincoln’s Inn and Chancery Lane, but Macfarlanes’ gaze is clearly set much further afield.

According to Macfarlanes’ Senior Partner, Charles Martin, the irony is that some applicants interested in overseas work disregard the single-office firm, even though international exposure is pretty much the norm for its Associates. The firm ‘enthusiastically embraces’ secondments, Martin says, and it’s usual that high-fliers will have experienced at least one but often two prior to making partner.

‘We don’t have a best friends network,’ Martin says, ‘and there’s only so much you can do to develop ‘deep’ relationships with clients and other firms. Secondments are the best way, which is one of the reasons we’ve been so active in this regard since the 1970s.’

Martin himself took a US secondment in1988/89, and is the firm’s third Senior Partner in a row to have spent time stateside. (Vanni Treves and Robert Sutton both spent time in New York, whilst Martin was sent to Los Angeles.) US counterparts sometimes say Macfarlanes is more like a New York firm than any other in London, Martin says, meaning its lawyers are ‘uninstitutional, client-centric, responsive and of a very high quality.’

At any one time, between four and seven percent of Macfarlanes’ Associates are on secondments, either in the UK or overseas. (‘A high enough percentage for it to be significant in our staffing conversations,’ says Martin.) But is managing a high volume of secondments tricky? No, says the firm’s Head of HR Rob Hind: ‘We just respond to the needs of the individual and the firm as they arise. It’s no more bureaucratic than that. We’re not that kind of firm.’

‘Not having a network is a big help’

Hind admits that some matching of temperament between Associate and opportunity has to take place – but also notes that secondments which challenge the individual ‘can help them to blossom’.

Certainly, recent secondees have positive tales to tell. Jatinder Bains, now a Partner in the Banking and Finance team, enjoyed a secondment in Milan.

‘I didn’t have a great deal of experience in structured finance back then’, Bains says. ‘So I learned a great deal about transaction structures and documents for this type of financing.’ Bains also picked up valuable experience in terms of office politics, and made contacts who have subsequently become clients.

Aaron Burke, an Associate who took a twelve month secondment in Brisbane, recognises that after training at a firm, it’s ‘beneficial to work within a new team, to see different methods and practices.’

Jennifer Smithson is a Partner in the Private Client department, who spent five months in the cross-border advisory team at JP Morgan Private Bank in New York. The key benefit, she explains, is exposure to the client perspective.

‘We’ll often advise clients on investment structuring that is tax efficient but – from an investment perspective – so restrictive as to severely impair investment performance,’ she says. ‘But ultimately the client is after performance first, and tax efficiency second.’

She adds that not having an international network is a big help to her projects. ‘Instead of being constrained to work with an overseas office of my own firm, I can choose freely among the best lawyers in each jurisdiction to find the best fit for the client and the job in hand.’

‘I know what bankers dislike’

Julian Thatcher, an M&A lawyer currently sitting with the in-house counsel of an investment bank in the corporate broking room, also stresses the benefit of experiencing the wider client-side picture.

Rather than just seeing the ‘functional’ legal aspects of private practice, he sees the wider commercial context, including research, analyst briefings, pricing and timing strategies. ‘I have seen what bankers value in lawyers, and what they dislike,’ Thatcher adds.

Charles Martin: ‘Smart decisions’ Photo: Macfarlanes

He also points out how international networks don’t necessarily equate to international work. ‘I’m now at a large investment bank and would say that, notwithstanding it having multiple offices around the world, the work is less international,’ he says. ‘Each office handles domestic work. Macfarlanes is involved with many more international deals.’

Back at Macfarlanes’ office in Cursitor Street, Charles Martin is considering making secondment experience a formal factor in new partner submissions. Martin also seems unfazed that the firm might be missing out on some trainee talent due to the apparent lack of international exposure. ‘An overseas trainee seat is a strong pull,’ he admits. ‘But then we like people who make smart decisions based on substance, and don’t just follow the graduate herd.’ AB

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