Try Before You Buy: Reducing Risk in Legal Hiring with Temp-to-Perm Staffing

When it comes to staffing, law firms and legal departments tend to limit their approach to two choices: permanent hires or contract legal professionals.

Permanent Hire                                                                

A permanent hire is the traditional approach. It is characterized by a thorough vetting from both sides to ensure a solid fit before entering into a long-term relationship. If the hire goes as planned, the team and the attorney are happily united with all the accompanying advantages, a stable resource with the potential to add greater value over the years and a projected career path with benefits and long-term security.

The potential pitfalls of permanent hiring are well-documented. The interview process is subjective. Interviewers are biased toward candidates that they personally connect with, which may not correlate with employee performance. Stakeholders may have different agendas and criteria which can lengthen the timeline and risk turning off qualified candidates. Additionally, wrong decisions are not easily remedied. While the hiring attorney may suspect early on that the hire is not working out, they’re reluctant to cut ties, loathing the prospect of another search, potential liability or recrimination from Human Resources. The hired attorney may similarly recognize that the relationship is not a match early on but will stick with it to avoid the stigma of being branded a job hopper.

Temporary Hire

On the other end of the spectrum is the contract arrangement. These are short-term engagements, usually lasting at least a few months although some lasting for a year or more. Often they are to fill an extended leave or staff a new project. They can also be used to add an attorney with niche experience to complement a team for a specific matter. Examples include:

  • A commercial transactions attorney to cover sudden disability leave
  • Compliance counsel to add bandwidth to a fully-allocated team tasked with launching a new regulatory project
  • An aviation attorney with an M&A background to advise on the acquisition of an airline

Because these roles are time-sensitive and for a shorter duration, hiring attorneys will concede some requirements – often cultural fit – that they would seek in a permanent hire. Contract attorneys also are more relaxed in their preferences.

In a contract relationship, as long as the contract legal professional can “keep the trains running,” hiring attorneys may tolerate a lack of industry knowledge or perfect cultural fit until a permanent resource becomes available or the period of high-demand ends. If the contract attorney is not working out, it is easy to cut ties and reboot the search.

Traditionally, the perception has been that contract legal professionals were not qualified to advise teams on complex issues. That perception no longer squares with reality. As the boomer workforce evolves, some contract attorneys have graduated from roles leading business units or practice groups to quasi-retirement. This segment of the legal workforce is interested in honing their hard-won skills without the headaches associated with managing multiple direct reports or other administrative obligations. Some of them are caregivers who appreciate the flexibility of a shorter term commitment with less responsibility.

While legal departments and law firms are increasingly open to using contract legal professionals, there are a few caveats. For positions that are in high demand, like privacy attorneys, compliance professionals and senior corporate paralegals, experienced candidates will only entertain permanent positions. Hiring attorneys that have historically only pursued candidates from Ivy League schools with five years of tutelage in the M&A practice of a white shoe firm will need to adjust their expectations. While highly credentialed candidates exist in the contract legal pool, demonstrated experience – the ability to quickly plug-in and become effective – is paramount.

Temp-to-Perm

When presented with these two strategies, the hiring attorney has two options that are on seemingly opposite ends of the risk-reward spectrum. There is a third option that blends the benefits of both models while balancing the risk. Unsurprisingly, it is called the “temp-to-perm” model. While temp-to-perm is not a brand new concept, it is still unfamiliar to many hiring attorneys.

In temp-to-perm, the relationship between the hiring attorney and the legal professional begins like a traditional contract relationship. However, the parties contemplate that if the arrangement is a good fit, the position will convert to a permanent hire. Some label this approach as “try before you buy.” This gives the hiring attorney and the team the chance to assess the capabilities of the contract legal professional for the job and also cultural fit. Hiring attorneys with concerns about the credentials of contract attorneys may find the quality of the candidate pool is increased by the potential of temp-to-perm.

The temp-to-perm relationship offers benefits for the contract legal professional as well. During the contract period, they can determine if the actual job is as advertised in the position description. They can explore other “soft” attributes like work schedule, commute, remote work policy and company culture. For both parties, if the arrangement is not working, it is relatively easy to go their separate ways during the contract period without the stigma of a failed hire or a question mark on one’s resume.

When headcount is limited, temp-to-perm offers an additional benefit: It can be used to justify budget for a new role. Using this strategy, the prototype position description is tested with an attorney who has a matching skill set. That attorney has the opportunity to mold the role around their own particular strengths. Other departments that are impacted by the role may be willing to allocate some operational budget until budget for headcount is approved. For example, the Sales department may allocate some budget for a contracts manager to get through the end of year crunch so that they can make their number.

In a temp-to-perm arrangement, it is important for the hiring attorney to be transparent and communicate early and often about their expectations and the timeline for conversion. If those expectations are met and value is demonstrated, the hiring attorney can more easily justify the case for adding headcount to management with the perfect candidate already in place.

Temp-to-perm will not be the answer to every staffing question. However, it can be highly effective when hiring attorneys project the need for a long-term hire but have had difficulty staffing the role in the past or anticipate more risk than normal either organizationally or specific to the role.

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