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Why Interim Legal Talent is a Boon for Start-Ups

Start-up companies, by their very nature, need to move more quickly than the established business. From software to biotech, it’s a feverish race to get the idea developed and the product, program or app launched and to market. Pressures facing start-ups include limited funding that’s threatening to run out, as well as emerging competitors who are working around the clock to get their product to market first.

In the fast-paced start-up environment, legal issues arise at a similarly rapid pace. While a start-up does require legal support, a staff attorney doesn’t always have to be the one to provide it. For basic tasks like document review or contract management, companies can choose from myriad self-service products or engage an alternative legal service provider. If it’s determined that a skilled attorney will add value for a specific problem or project, engaging outside counsel is always an option—but it can be an expensive one.

Filling the Gap Before a Permanent Legal Hire

Inevitably, there will come a time during the initial growth period when the amount of legal work requires a permanent hire, and that timing depends largely on a start-up’s industry and product. But chances are there will be a period of “limbo” leading up to that event.

Having partnered with technology start-ups and listened to the challenges faced by general counsels (GCs) working through periods of aggressive growth, I’ve seen a handful of recurring issues facing tech companies in their infancy. These include:

  • Current legal needs are being met, but there may be unanticipated needs for more support as issues emerge. However, the start-up’s management team is unsure as to whether this need will require permanent or consistent help.
  • The budget for the services of an outsourced law firm is dwindling, and there is pressure to find an alternative to these lofty costs.
  • The need for steady legal support is real, but the CFO will not approve a second permanent hire until some future milestone is reached, whether it’s Q4 or the new year. The reasons for not wanting to pull the trigger are many. Sometimes it’s a reluctance to have to pay benefits and employment taxes in addition to a sizeable salary. Or, given the uncertainty of a start-up, the founders don’t want to set an expectation for long-term employment.

Even if a start-up is not ready to commit to a full-time employee, it’s important to have a plan in place for legal support as the budding organization continues to grow. This is where interim legal talent comes in.

The Rise of the Contract Attorney

The legal industry has changed dramatically in the past decade, and the demand for competent, cultivated contract attorneys has surged. Temporary, full-time legal work, once avoided like the plague, has lost its stigma as law firm partners and corporate GCs realize the huge benefits of leveraging flexible legal talent.

For start-ups, the benefits of interim legal counsel include lower costs than an outside firm that charges much higher hourly rates. Interim lawyers work at the company’s location and charge only for the hours worked, giving the business more control over legal costs. What’s more, these legal professionals can assist with a variety of substantive work beyond document review—ranging from intellectual property issues to regulatory compliance requirements and everything in between.

An interim professional can be a very cost-effective answer to temporary legal needs, which can include everything from an uptick in filings caused by a recent regulation change to the acquisition of a similar start-up that involves complex contract processes. While the required skillsets, budgets and contract durations may vary across the board, both of these situations are excellent opportunities to utilize an interim attorney.

How to Find Interim Legal Talent

With so much on their plate already, many GCs working in start-ups do not have time to weigh every option between a full-time hire and the high costs of outsourced law firm legal work. They also may not realize the degree of flexibility available via the tailoring of an interim attorney agreement to their budget, timeline or required capabilities.

In meeting with GCs, I always like to reassure them that there is a candidate pool within their budget and desired skillset for the interim need. Many highly qualified attorneys who have followed the traditional BigLaw career path are actively looking for contract opportunities that will give them the flexibility and exposure they want, while allowing them to stay in the field they love.

Setting the Stage for Success

After a start-up has hired a professional for their short-term needs, the next step is getting them integrated and engaged with the organization. If a company hasn’t yet worked with a contract legal professional, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a successful partnership.

  • Provide project-specific guidance: A detailed playbook is instrumental in helping the interim professional best serve the needs of the business. This should include explicit responsibilities, goals and milestones. Work assignments must be well-defined and indicate the number of hours needed to ensure optimal work.
  • Practice clear, consistent communication: Open lines of communication should be maintained between interim counsel and team leaders, fellow attorneys and senior management. Feedback, whether throughout a project or via a formal review, is an important part of ensuring a good outcome.
  • Define clear lines of reporting: To get any project started off right, it's vital to explain the reporting structure at the outset. Outline a clear hierarchy to resolve questions and conflicts as they arise.

If a permanent legal hire is not yet on your start-up’s radar—but you anticipate needing qualified legal counsel for a specific event or growth period—an interim lawyer can be the most economical, efficient path. Working with an experienced legal recruiter can help you quickly tap into the wealth of interim legal talent that's out there and find a professional that’s a seamless fit for your new venture.

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