Evolution of the Interim Attorney Model

Before the 2009 global economic crisis, the majority of in-house legal departments were conventionally managed, with all of their matters handled by their in-house counsel or through preferred outside counsel relationships. However, in the wake of the crisis, department budgets became extremely tight while businesses were facing increased regulation at a staggering pace. Overall, legal departments were challenged (more than ever) to do more with less. 

The general counsel was forced to evolve into more dynamic business partners to the C-suite and business lines. They also engaged in law firm convergence efforts and negotiated new arrangements with outside counsel as well as experimented with innovations such as process outsourcing and interim coverage models for niche projects and expertise gaps. 

As MLA Interim Legal Talent spent more and more time engaging with legal departments and learning how they were responding to operational challenges, there was a group that seemed ahead of the curve: the early adopters of the interim attorney model. These early adopters developed robust in-house teams and well-established firm relationships like everyone else, but they also had a third tier of trusted legal service providers they could turn to for work that didn’t fit either of the two traditional options. General counsel were typically open to considering interim candidates in their network for niche projects, overflow work, leave coverage, etc., whether it was a solo practitioner, a semi-retired attorney, a past employee working part time while raising a family, or a friend of a friend that was in-between jobs and willing to take on a flexible work assignment. Their ability to manage a large network of potential resources allowed for a significant level of flexibility and internal controls, which yielded substantial cost savings over time.

In the years since, the use of interim attorneys for niche projects and substantive overflow work has become more mainstream. In-house counsel now regularly turn to an interim attorney when faced with a finite project or amount of overflow work that doesn’t rise to the level of complexity or risk to necessitate retaining an AmLaw partner. But often, this option is only considered when the department experiences a niche project or overflow need that requires a resource for 40 hours per week and for a known period of time. However, once again, those forward-thinking leaders are taking it further.

While they are still identifying niche projects and overflow work that is somewhat predictable, the work is not always consistent, finite or robust. Leaders are still engaging well-qualified interim attorneys; however, they are relying less on their personal networks and more on the expertise of legal services providers who have their own networks of attorneys who choose to either work only sporadically or make a living engaging with a number of legal departments on an as-needed basis.

Typically, in-house counsel identifies a project need—one where they cannot justify full-time headcount just yet—and seeks out a specialist with a specific expertise. However, in many cases, the selected contract attorney possesses more than just the desired expertise and can nimbly address other needs as they arise. They then handle the expected work—and more—and the client builds trust and comfort with the contractor while the contractor gains familiarity with the organization. It’s the state of a relationship that can pay off in spades in the long run.

These forward-thinking leaders have learned that they can realize tremendous value over time with minimal investment. The most apparent is the cost savings of outsourcing to interim attorneys as opposed to relying on costly traditional methods. The department also benefits because they now have an overflow resource readily available and their permanent staff can focus on higher value work elsewhere.

The interim talent model is ideal in this current economic climate where budgets are tight and the future is uncertain. In-house counsel is likely to make decisions that will allow them to operate lean and maintain the option to engage legal talent on an as-needed basis, which helps in-house counsel address legal matters within their budgetary constraints.

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