Mind Your Business

Now is the time to consider a lawyer exchange

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As lawyers, whether we practice in a corporate legal office, a global law firm or an independent firm, we are all trying to position ourselves for success in a changing and more globalized legal landscape. We are also all facing challenges in recruiting and retaining the young lawyers who will help us get there. Lawyer exchanges are one tool that can be effective on both fronts.

Unlike in a secondment, lawyers participating in exchanges work on behalf of their home firm and its clients during their time at the host firm. Billing remains as usual, client matters continue to move forward, and there is no need for licensure in the host jurisdiction. At the same time, participating lawyers are being exposed to how another, noncompetitive firm works and getting a taste of jurisdictional differences.

During the past couple of years, business leaders, including leading firms, have recognized the need to understand what will attract and retain the best and brightest of a tightening talent pool. This is particularly important for midsize or independent firms that may not always enjoy the branded prestige of an Am Law 100 firm. For these firms, creative offerings that meet the hopes and expectations of their most valued talent resources can often differentiate them in the marketplace.

While global firm networks have been innovators in using lawyer exchanges as a tool for recruitment and retention, exchanges can work for Am Law 100 firms, as well. Exchanges can take place between two different offices within an Am Law 100 firm or between an Am Law office and a nonaffiliated, noncompetitive firm in a different geographic jurisdiction, for example.

The best exchanges happen between firms, offices and/or departments between which business would naturally flow. For example, we have seen interest between firms located in different jurisdictions that are trade partners—U.S. firms with those in Mexico and Canada, for example—as there is potential for many cross-border matters.

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Advantages for law firms and lawyers

Lawyer exchanges can provide a unique offering that serves the goal of rising leaders or young lawyers who often want to experience variety, continue to do exemplary work, and perhaps stretch their potential in different ways. While the young lawyers may be attracted by the chance to visit an exciting new city, they are also building their careers and leadership skills by expanding their horizons, which is a positive for all parties.

Jessica Punch of DMAW Lawyers in Adelaide, South Australia, participated in a recent exchange, spending two weeks at Bennett & Philp in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

“The lawyer exchange program provided me with a unique and exciting opportunity to broaden my professional experience beyond that of my usual work,” Punch said. “For instance, I was fortunate enough to be presented with the opportunity to assist my host firm with a matter relating to an area of law that I had not previously been exposed to.”

The two-week sojourn at another firm was also beneficial from a business development point of view.

“The exchange was a great way for me to expand my professional network by connecting with practitioners of a similar experience level and gain insight into their approach to navigating the early stages of their career,” Punch said. “This insight has also been valuable for my firm, having recently implemented a number of new initiatives that are focused at assisting our graduates and junior lawyers to cultivate their professional skill sets.”

While the focus is often on the business development, educational and networking benefits for the lawyers involved, exchanges are valuable for the firms, as well. Whitney Moore in Dublin, Ireland, was recently part of an exchange with Howard Kennedy in London and Anderson Strathern in Edinburgh, Scotland, which involved five lawyers.

“Taking part in the exchange program this year provided a wonderful opportunity for our firm to strengthen the existing connections and build new ones with the participating firms,” said Emma Richmond, partner at Whitney Moore.

“Hosting lawyers from Howard Kennedy in England and Anderson Strathern in Scotland was also a wonderful way to build lasting connections with these lawyers and to hear and learn about their work in their respective firms,” Richmond added. “For our exchange lawyer, it was a very positive experience. He made some great connections within the host firm and also gained an insight into how another firm operates, which will help him as he progresses through his career.”

Best practices for success

In a post-pandemic legal industry—one that is driven by collaborative technologies and increased acceptance that lawyers can engage with each other through multiple channels—lawyer exchange programs can truly be tailored to the uniqueness of the firms, their lawyers and their specific objectives.

What is most important is that the firms or offices think through some practical considerations regarding salaries and benefits, tax implications, living accommodations, immigration rules and jurisdictional requirements. As exchanges are undertaken, documenting the process, assessing the results and seeking feedback from participants will allow firms to develop case studies outlining what worked and what could be improved as these programs evolve to meet specific objectives.

One of the most important factors in a successful exchange is to clearly identify the goals upfront. What do the host firms or offices and the visiting lawyers hope to get out of the exchange? Discussing these questions at the outset will help guide the specific arrangements—not just for logistics but also for the kinds of work that the visiting lawyer will perform. This will ensure the best possible experience.

We are seeing an acceleration of lawyer exchanges post-pandemic. From my ongoing discussions with firms, I have found that the idea of conducting an exchange is easier for firms to support as the comfort level with remote work has grown. Young lawyers can easily continue to complete critical work for their home firms or offices, preventing work interruptions (and regulatory issues), even while they focus on getting the most out of their exchange experience.

It’s not just logistics that are making lawyer exchanges increasingly appealing. The globalization of the legal industry dictates that firms forge closer ties with noncompetitive firms in other markets to better serve their clients and to help firms succeed in an increasingly competitive landscape. This vision is foundational to a global legal network like ours, but it is important for any firm or office whose clients are likely to have cross-regional legal needs.

Here at Meritas, since we initially launched our global lawyer exchange initiative in 2009, we estimate that 24 firms and 34 lawyers have formally participated through Meritas programs, and others have shared informal exchanges throughout the network.

In the fourth quarter of 2022, after the post-pandemic relaunch of the program in September of that year, five firms and seven lawyers participated. And the numbers of firms and lawyers who been involved in exchanges in 2023 are double those of 2022. Member firms in the United States, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America are all exploring ways to incorporate this initiative within their markets and across regions. And most of the firms that have participated in 2022 and 2023 have said they hope to do additional exchanges—with some already planned.

Through this experience, we have learned a lot about what works when it comes to conducting exchanges that provide real value. We hope our learnings are useful to others interested in developing exchanges with noncompetitive firms or offices.

Perhaps the most important reason to consider implementing a lawyer exchange is that these programs are so attractive to young lawyers. Lawyer exchanges can become a critical tool to help entice excellent candidates to join your firm, keep them fulfilled and effective, and set them up for future success. And when these young lawyers are successful, so are our firms.

Sona Pancholy is the president of Meritas, a global alliance of leading independent law firms. Pancholy is responsible for providing Meritas with strategic leadership and working collaboratively with key stakeholders to establish and implement organizational vision and strategy to provide innovative client solutions. Pancholy has more than 25 years of experience leading business strategy for organizations in the legal industry. She began her career in global legal associations, including the World Jurist Association and the International Municipal Lawyers Association. She also spent 10 years training and guiding lawyers through effective client development strategies and led client engagement at the Bloomberg Industry Group.

Mind Your Business is a series of columns written by lawyers, legal professionals and others within the legal industry. The purpose of these columns is to offer practical guidance for attorneys on how to run their practices, provide information about the latest trends in legal technology and how it can help lawyers work more efficiently, and strategies for building a thriving business.

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