What’s in a Name? Exploring Lexical Precision: Categorizing Legal Service Providers


While struggling through the euphemistic maze of the legal services consulting world, one is reminded of the great philosopher-comedian George Carlin dissecting the evolution of language in America:

“I won't have to die...I'll pass away. Or I'll expire like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital, they'll call it a terminal episode. The insurance company will refer to it as negative patient-care outcome. And if it's the result of malpractice, they'll say it was a therapeutic misadventure. I'm telling you, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit. Makes me want to engage in an involuntary personal protein spill.”

While the subject of legal service providers is almost inherently humorless, the terminology thrown around on LinkedIn would be terrific fodder for Carlin’s segment. Sadly, he died passed away in 2008!

Kidding aside, as we talked to in-house attorneys in 2023, it became clear that how law department leaders conceptualize and categorize legal providers does impact their ability to craft a successful strategy for engaging with them.

Here is a routine scenario: Someone asks us what we do for a living or to explain our practice. Regardless of whether it’s someone deeply knowledgeable about the legal industry or a layperson, at some point in the ensuing conversation one of the following terms or concepts gets introduced:

  • Interim Legal Talent
  • Freelance lawyer
  • Secondment
  • Network of Solo Practitioners (tech platform)
  • Contract Attorneys
  • Document Review
  • Temp Agency for Lawyers
  • Alternative Legal Services Provider / ALSP
  • Legal Recruiting
  • (Insert Name of Competitor)

Depending on who the person is, each of these terms may land differently. In almost every circumstance, there is a follow-up question and the opportunity to clarify—but the inevitable tension has already arisen. Does this person really understand what we are talking about??

Let’s take the term “contract attorneys” for starters.

One GC might hear that term and reflexively think of recent law school graduates or generalist attorneys engaged to process routine legal tasks or conduct document reviews. These are important roles to be sure, but the attorneys who take those positions are not, in most cases, going to be practical candidates for positions that require more advanced skills.

Another might hear the term “contract attorney” and think it refers to an attorney engaged to review commercial or other contracts.

This could lead to a consulting misadventure!

Now let’s look at the term “secondment.”

Our experience tells us that most clients use this term to describe an arrangement, typically with a law firm, in which the firm “loans out” a junior attorney to be imbedded within a corporate, in-house group. GCs report various levels of satisfaction with these arrangements, but one common refrain is that often the attorneys “seconded” to companies are more junior and, needing to be trained, cannot easily “hit the ground running.” Additionally, the costs of these services vary but, depending on the arrangement, can be prohibitive for the level of experience provided.

With other providers, secondments might look entirely different.

For example, in December 2023, a GC dealing with an unexpected leave of a securities attorney on his team reached out to MLA Interim Legal Talent to see what options we had for temporary coverage. It would not be a stretch to say he was asking for a “secondment.” To properly cover for the attorney on leave, the attorney candidates needed to have in-depth SEC experience and a proven ability to work independently on sensitive matters. Not a junior associate on loan. Upon reviewing the resumes of three potential candidates 48 hours later, the GC was shocked:

  • “They were perfect.”
  • “It was exactly what we were looking for. Spot on.”
  • “Pleasantly surprised at the level of sophistication.”

Had this GC thought he was going to see typical “secondment” candidates – he may never have reached out. He was looking more for of counsel or partner-level attorneys.

Other terms conjure up past experiences with companies that may appear similar on the surface—buzz words like “flexible,” “scalable,” and “on demand” require further investigation—but whose internal processes around recruiting, roster building, and client services are wholly dissimilar from one another.

Unable, perhaps, to judge from the company’s name itself, how is a savvy GC to differentiate companies in this ever-crowded legal services provider space? We recommend asking three simple questions of potential partners:

1. Who does your recruiting and how do you do it?

Are the people tasked with building and maintaining your network of talent treated as entry-level workers biding time until they graduate to a ‘real job’ within the company? Or are they highly experienced, well-compensated professionals who have spent years honing their skills as networked recruiters? Digging into a provider’s process around recruiting will help you make sure their talent acquisition team consists of professionals with deep, long-standing networks. Automation and scale have an ever-increasing role to play in the process, but there is a nuance to creating successful client engagements. Make sure your partners are striking the right balance.

2. What factors lead to a successful engagement?

For a worthwhile collaboration in the ALSP space, strong alignment among the provider, the corporate legal department, and the provided consultants is essential. While the talent needing to possess the necessary experience is a given, true success lies in paying attention to factors such as cultural fit, budget, work product expectations, and operationalization plans. Your ALSP and organization need a thorough understanding of these elements to ensure a seamless and fruitful partnership.

3. How did your company come to be in the legal talent space?

Many companies play around in the legal talent space. GCs need to ask questions to uncover where a company’s true expertise lies. Some started as technology companies, others began as legal recruiters for law firms or in-house departments and still others started as “document review” (there is another term) companies. What does the ALSP’s history and evolution say about whether they are likely to succeed in curating a network of specialists? Is the company a jack of all trades but master of none? Or is there a core competency that runs through all aspects of what they do?

Like any crowded, competitive market, navigating the ALSP world can be confusing. As such, we urge GCs to lean in and take the time to fully understand what they are dealing with.

In the end, they will end up with a better legal team – or as Carlin might have called it – an efficacious talent enhancement circumstance!


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