What is a Contract Attorney?

Whether you work at a law firm, within a corporate in-house legal department or tender legal services; you have probably interacted with a contract attorney in some manner and may not have even known it. In this post, I would like to shed some light on the history of contract attorneys, what purpose they serve, and how using their expertise in today’s changing legal landscape can offer a competitive advantage.

Let's take a look at the history and evolution of the contract attorney. Originally, contract attorneys were primarily used for litigation support or conducting due diligence. As various external pressures continue to change the legal landscape, law firms and corporations are using contract attorneys for more substantive roles to become cost competitive. The legal industry has experienced a “New Normal” for how business is done. Law firms and in-house legal departments are constantly trying to reduce costs while maximizing resources and revenues. Today, contract attorneys can perform all the functions of a full time associate or in-house counsel. They can address various practice areas including: real estate transactions, M&A deals, regulatory & compliance, IP work, labor & employment, and litigation support. They assist with law & motion work, depositions, discovery and case strategy. There is no set DNA for a contract attorney. Backgrounds can range from working parents, tenured attorneys staying active, solo practitioners supplementing work flow, attorneys in transition, attorneys that have recently relocated to the area, or attorneys who simply enjoy the flexible life style of contract work.

The use of contract attorneys is still evolving in the market place. Some are hired directly by a firm or in-house legal department, work through a staffing firm, or are in some type of secondment engagement. There are also many job titles associated with the "contract attorney" model. To name a few we see:  contract attorney, staff attorney, non-partner track attorney, of counsel, consultant, litigation support attorney, eDiscovery attorney, and document review attorney. Point being, there are different roles and business models to consider when engaging the services of a contract attorney.

Here are a few benefits a contract attorney can provide. They can quickly address increases in workload, provide employers the ability to fluctuate staff to address workflow needs, utilize subject matter experts for various practice area gaps, allow you to "try before you buy", reduce burden through reduction of full time staff, offer alternative avenues to hire outside of set budgets, ensure an extra screening layer to address attrition issues, compete on fixed fee business, keep legal work in-house to address bandwidth issues or certain practice areas outside legal scope, control legal costs, and lower advertising costs for hiring.

Things to consider when working with a contract attorney:

  1. Do you want to incur payroll costs and employment liability? By partnering with a reputable staffing firm with expertise in legal recruiting, you can hedge your employment costs onto their payroll to allow more flexibility with workflow and reduce potential employment liabilities.
  2. Are you seeking a long term hire or simply addressing an immediate need? If you have an urgent matter where time is of the essence, engaging a contract attorney can help ease hiring costs and reduce the risk of increased overhead and potential unemployment costs if workflow reduces. A contract attorney can also address maternity leave coverage.
  3. Do you have knowledge gaps or limited bandwidth within your legal department or practice groups? Hiring a contract attorney with expertise in a niche area can help strengthen your legal group while maintaining quality standards.  This allows you to limit outsourcing of work to law firms or solo practitioners and increase service offerings to your clients, potentially resulting in more revenue.
  4. Do you want to reduce outside counsel spend? Does this model fit within your budget? Consider your budget for legal services or fixed employment costs. Sometimes a contract or temp-to-hire model can be more cost effective than trying to find quality attorneys on your own or incurring additional employment exposure.
  5. Are you working with a recognized leader in legal recruiting? A reputable staffing firm should have proper liability, financial stability, strong emphasis on customer service, and a deep bench of experienced legal recruiters throughout the market regionally, nationally and internationally. Ensure you are partnering with someone who can meet weekly payroll and limit your liability. Certain staffing firms will also offer their contract attorneys benefits, continual work and competitive pay to obtain top talent.

The legal industry is continually evolving and forward-thinking leaders in this space are utilizing contract attorneys in innovative ways every day. While the "contract attorney" concept isn’t necessarily new, progressive thinking has moved the concept into new areas. Whether you are under pricing pressures, human capital shortages, or seeking a new way to manage a quality flexible legal group; contract attorneys should be part of the equation.

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Tim Colbert is Managing Director with Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Solutions Practice Group located in their Los Angeles, CA office. He has over 15 years of contract staffing experience in a variety of industries and assisted hundreds of clients with thousands of placements. MLA is recognized as the industry leader in legal search worldwide with over 30 years of successful placements. Tim can be reached at (213) 225-0634 and tcolbert@mlaglobal.com.

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