Since the economy has begun to rebound, law firms and corporations alike have struggled with the experience gap created by the massive layoffs of associates in the late 2000s. Law firms and corporations have had to resort to more creative measures to address their needs for expert legal talent on their teams or projects. Using an interim attorney model has proven to be a positive alternative to full-time hiring when they find themselves with too much work, a need for expertise and lack of manpower.
Loeb & Loeb, for example, was an early adopter of this model and continues to find success in engaging talented attorneys on a consulting basis. They began using this model—much like other firms—because business began to pick back up and they found themselves in need of quick access to quality associate-level talent that was not readily available.
“A few years ago we were looking for corporate associates and found that the market was very tight in terms of available full-time help,” explained Lacie Marshall, director of professional development and legal recruiting for Loeb & Loeb. “I approached our department chair about using a short-term model to fill the gap until we found the right long-term fit. Because this model helped bridge the gap, we were able to build out that department to where it’s now thriving and we did so in a non-stressful, thought-out way.”
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner has also found the interim model beneficial, but not because of a lack of talent. They rely on this model to meet clients’ specialized needs.
“Clients are demanding more focused expertise at a more competitive rate on the day-to-day matters we handle as part of our overall representation of a client. A junior associate, while suitable as a second or third chair on a large matter, often cannot service such day-to-day matters efficiently, so staff or contract lawyers are a great option to fill those needs,” said Andrew Klungness, partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.
The interim attorney model provides law firms—and corporate legal departments—flexibility in their hiring practices and access to talent that may not be available as a full-time employee. While firms historically like to have candidates with perfect resumes, there are not enough of those candidates actively in the market these days. With the interim attorney model, firms often get a more experienced attorney who is willing to take on the work that needs to get done while also training junior attorneys. Working with interim legal allows firms to maximize their profitability as they can vary the attorneys’ hours and workload to fit budget and time constraints.
“We pay for the time spent in the office, so it’s on us to manage them efficiently and make sure they aren’t sitting around waiting or in the office on days we don’t need them,” explains Marshall. “With traditional associates, they have a salary, so we do not have to think about that. Instead we’ve had to get partners conditioned to view them through a different lens.”
The common misconception about interim attorneys is that they are inexperienced, have built a resume in e-discovery or cannot find a job. This is rarely the case. Interim attorneys are experienced practitioners who come from private practice, in-house legal departments and even the government. They specialize in myriad areas and apply that knowledge to the benefit of each new organization they work with.
“You can’t plan to use a document review attorney to perform a client-facing role or vice versa. Contract lawyers are experienced in a specific area and come in to do a specific job. They are on a different path and can often fill the same role for several years in a way that partner track associates cannot,” Klungness said.
Not everyone wants to be an on-track associate that aspires to be partner or general counsel. Interim attorneys choose to work on a project and interim basis for a variety of reasons, many of which allow them the work-life balance they desire. However, it does require a new approach to hiring.
“When we first started hiring contractors, we were still asking the questions about what law schools or firms have they worked at,” said Marshall. “Now we look at expertise despite number of years’ experience. We’re not beholden to traditional lockstep structure, so by having candidates who are nontraditional in full-time positions, we are able to try new things and explore new profiles.”
Using interim legal talent is not often thought of as the first hiring option, but it can be the best answer to staffing challenges and skill gaps. “Peaks are higher and valleys are lower than ever in law, so being able to ramp up and down with the contract model is a solution to that.” Klungness continued, “Our clients’ business needs have changed, so we have to be responsive to our client, which in turn has changed our approach to hiring. Our goal is to have the right resources for the right engagement.”
For law firms to successful adopt this model, however, it requires an internal mind shift and support from the partnership. “The support from that first corporate partner who was willing to try this approach really made all the difference,” Marshall said. “He was an out-of-the-box thinker and shared the success from that first experience with the others and it was very well received. That’s why others have been more open to trying it.”
Law firms can benefit from hiring interim attorneys for short-term projects or to fill gaps in bandwidth because they will be able to fill a need without a long-term commitment. Firms will be able to better evaluate their current state and control costs while keeping the work on track and then make educated decisions around spend and headcount. An experienced legal staffing firm can help law firms navigate the process and find solutions that will ultimately save them money and a headache.