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Debunking 3 Myths About Contract Attorneys

The legal industry is constantly challenged by how to do more with less. In today’s market, law firms and legal departments are under increased pressure to control costs and increase productivity. Coupled with changing views about work-life balance, the legal industry is shifting the way their services are performed and delivered. The legal departments and law firms that adopt new methods and evolve will realize that project-based and interim attorneys are a key piece of the puzzle.

Historically, law firms only hired temporary attorney support to assist in the tedious work of document review and litigation discovery. These hires tended to be recent law school graduates or career attorneys who were no longer with their law firms, who worked for lower hourly rates and went from case to case.

Around the dot-com boom and early 2000s, law firms and corporations began to open their minds to the idea of hiring more experienced lawyers on contract for more substantive matters. Hiring a contract attorney to assist with an acquisition, a real estate deal or compliance due diligence became mainstream.

As this mindset grew and the economic downturn of 2008 hit hard, law firm leadership, the C-suite and general counsel were forced to control legal costs even more, and the idea of project-based attorneys became more appealing. Today, contract attorneys can help law firms and legal departments address many of their most difficult staffing and resourcing issues.

Despite the fact that contract attorneys represent a quality source of legal work and a smart way to staff important projects, many legal departments and law firms hesitate to hire contract attorneys because they hold onto unfair, uninformed and inaccurate assumptions. The next time you face a legal challenge that requires help beyond your internal team, whether due to skill gaps or bandwidth issues, reconsider these three common myths about contract attorneys.

Myth 1: Contract Attorneys Are not Experienced Lawyers

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Many contract attorneys are highly credentialed and seasoned graduates of top law schools, and are hired specifically for their years and depth of experience.

Contract attorneys choose this work because it offers a way to make a meaningful impact while having more flexibility. They could be senior-level lawyers seeking more flexibility after years of climbing the corporate ladder, law firm associates or partners who want to go in-house and are open to contract work as a stepping stone to eventually becoming full-time employees, secondary earners who desire more flexibility, or lawyers who want manageable hours when returning to the workforce after taking time to raise young children.

They still perform complex work and want to be intellectually challenged. These situations are common in today’s candidate market. Whether due to a personal interest or a professional and financial necessity, today’s contract attorneys perform, interact and excel no different than the tenured senior counsel on their tenth anniversary in the department.

Myth 2: They Can Only Do Low-Level Work

There are plenty of examples where contract attorneys can help legal departments and law firms with very substantive matters. It’s not unusual for a legal team, particularly one in transition, to hire a contract attorney for his or her experience with a specific type of transaction or transition, such as a sale, initial public offering, regulatory review or other matter. Legal departments may need contract attorneys for other discrete projects such as mergers and acquisitions, corporate and finance, regulatory audits, compliance change management, contract negotiations, real estate and employment/labor issues.

Boutique, regional and emerging law firms often need a contract attorney’s assistance with niche matters or sophisticated deals that require expertise for a finite period of time. Law firms of various sizes have inquired about hiring specialist attorneys as a means of attracting or retaining business.

Primary examples are in health care and financial regulations where the firms may service a client generally and do not want to have to refer out the highly specialized work and risk that client leaving for another firm. Contract attorneys at the partner level can be “at the ready” for these types of matters, and they are much less expensive than keeping a partner with that expertise on the books.

Practice groups may also need added bandwidth to meet a client deadline or to simply avoid burnout. New offices or new partner groups may staff up with contract attorneys so they don’t have to make hasty hiring decisions. Consider a law firm growing one of its practices and courting a partner with significant business in that area. The firm wouldn’t want to hire associates for the partner until the business actually proves portable, but the partner may not make the move without dedicated resources to service the business. In these situations, firms would hire contract attorneys who could become permanently employed if the business actually materializes.

Myth 3: Contract Attorneys Are Inefficient and not Cost-Effective

Unlike working with outside counsel, where a project may be assigned to an unnamed associate the general counsel never interviewed, contract attorneys are available to a legal department full time, are easier to oversee than outside counsel and are just a short walk down the hall if work needs to be revised or adjusted. This full-time dedication makes a contract attorney more efficient than hiring outside counsel in many ways.

They are also cost-effective alternatives. Contract attorneys generally work for lower hourly rates than what legal departments pay for outside counsel — conservatively, hourly rates for contract attorneys are 30-50% lower than large law firms and 20-30% lower than midsize firms. So legal departments know exactly how much they’re spending on contract attorneys rather than being dependent on the accumulated hours of outside counsel. And legal departments and firms aren’t committed to doling out the large bonuses that you see in BigLaw.

Contract attorneys are a great resource for law firms and legal departments to hire experienced and qualified attorneys to work on substantive matters. They are also a great way to keep costs manageable in an ever-changing legal market.

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