Are Part-Time Attorneys the Staffing Solution You’ve Been Looking for?
Some firms are turning to temporary help instead of adding new employees to the payroll — which can potentially offer several advantages.
While 44% of law firms recently toldRobert Half they intend to hire full-time employees in the first half of this year, an even greater amount — 78% — are planning to bring contract-based lawyers, legal specialists and other professionals on board through June.
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Workers who provide assistance on a part-time or temporary basis can be a solution for firms that want to reduce their staff members’ rapidly escalating workloads. This is especially true for firms that aren’t sure hiring someone long-term would be necessary — or even possible, due to the tight job market.
Attorney Kiran Gore has brought in temporary help since launching her Washington D.C. firm, the Law Offices of Kiran N Gore PLLC in 2022. Law students and other professionals have handled paralegal and law clerk-type tasks, such as proofreading documents, for a day or more than a week when she’s had to quickly ramp up to meet federal court litigation filing tasks.
“The types of cases I take on usually are driven by my personal expertise; it’s not really something where I would staff up a firm,” Gore says. “However, I can’t do everything at all times — so having that additional support when needed is helpful. For me, it’s a scalability solution.”
THE VALUE OF EXTERNAL EMPLOYEES
Freelance legal professionals may also be able to provide expertise that supplements a solo practitioner or law firm’s overall skill set, such as familiarity with another country’s laws or language, Gore says.
With increased lawyer headcounts linked to an increase in law firm direct expenses in 2021 and 2022, according to Thomson Reuters research, firms may also find temporary roles could help buoy their bottom line.
When Chiquita Hall-Jackson, who felt the associate attorney she’d previously worked with needed more mentoring than she had time to give, decided someone with 10 or more years of experience would be a better fit to draft the complex legal documents her Chicago-based employment law and real estate practice requires, instead of adding a new six-figure salary hire, she began working with a few contract attorneys in mid-2022. She initially planned to delegate cases to them as they came in the door.
While ultimately, one attorney didn’t work out — Hall-Jackson felt they had different ideas of what the position should entail — and another accepted a full-time job with another employer, one contract attorney, who is based in Wisconsin, has been drafting complaints and motion responses, sending out demand letters and completing other tasks for Hall-Jackson and Associates P.C. for almost a year.
“I have been able to start a whole other business, bringing awareness to employment law and employee rights, along with some training, consulting and speaking — because I have someone doing the drafting.”
Hall-Jackson says he’s also become a valuable asset when she’s considering taking on new cases. “He vets those cases prior to me, and his input has been instrumental as to strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “A lot of times, as an employment lawyer, you take on cases you probably shouldn’t because you just want to help somebody, [or] they talk a good game. It’s been helpful to have that third-party to run the case by. That’s something, when I was looking for a contract attorney, that I did not anticipate getting help with.”
The firm also works with an intake specialist and a paralegal, independent contractors who handle deadline calendar entries, extension requests and other administrative responsibilities remotely, which has freed Jackson-Hall up to perform — and seek out — more work.
“It definitely was a challenge before,” she says. “We actually would stop taking cases three months at a time, at least twice a year, because of capacity. I have been able to start a whole other business, bringing awareness to employment law and employee rights, along with some training, consulting and speaking — because I have someone doing the drafting. And if opposing counseling needs to hop on the phone, someone’s going to intelligently engage in the conversation while I do the things I need to. All of this helps get our firm name out there so we can get more clients.”
A WINNING PROPOSITION
Part-time or project-based help can clearly be advantageous for law firms. Freelance lawyers, though, too, can benefit from the arrangement. Often, it may grant them some flexibility. Hall-Jackson’s contract attorney, for instance, just needs to commit to working a minimum of 20 hours at some point during the month.
Freelance work can be a way for solo practitioners to augment the business their firm takes on independently. “All firms have a low season,” Hall-Jackson says. “This is another way to supplement income.”
Young attorneys can potentially gain valuable real-world exposure to casework through a limited-time engagement — which can potentially also be an opportunity for experienced professionals who aren’t seeking a full-time commitment.
“I come from a background of Big Law, where 80-hour work weeks and being very much beholden to your job is normal.” Gore says. “Part of why I left that model is because I did think that work-life balance is crucial and important. Sometimes people have great skills that they’re not able to put into use simply because they’re not looking for a full-time or permanent position. I see bringing on freelance help as a way to support that kind of talent.”
If the relationship works out, contracting professionals temporarily could even strengthen a firm’s recruiting efforts.
“We found out that model was actually helpful in terms of getting the work done — and was also profitable for us from a revenue-generating standpoint. So we’ve replicated it a few times since then.”
The 10-attorney law firm Rammelkamp Bradney, P.C., which was founded in 1895, actually began utilizing temporary attorney arrangements in 2014 when a lawyer approached the firm about the possibility due to availability in his schedule, according to partner Ryan Byers. The firm placed him on a sizeable pipeline development project that periodically would involve extensive paperwork for roughly six months to a year, followed by a several-month gap in activity, making a short-term hire ideal.
“We found out that model was actually helpful in terms of getting the work done — and was also profitable for us from a revenue-generating standpoint,” Byers says. “So we’ve replicated it a few times since then.”
The firm’s temporary attorneys have generally worked a full 40-hour week but knew their tenure would be limited. Rammelkamp Bradney tried, though, to hire one of the attorneys it had employed on a limited basis. He ended up finding permanent employment elsewhere, but Byerssays that’s something the firm is open to.
“You could look at it as a way to test drive an attorney,” he says. “Because particularly at a smaller or midsized firm like ours, you invest a lot of time and resources in onboarding that person, and if it doesn’t work out, you unfortunately have a lot of sunk costs that you’re only getting minimal return on. If you were able to bring in somebody on a part-time or limited-duration basis, it would be an excellent way to screen them for long-term employment.”
ESTABLISHING A SOLID STRUCTURE
Finding a legal professional who’d rather work part-time than permanently isn’t always easy. Byers says his firm has had luck with traditional candidate sources, such as job boards, law schools and word of mouth.
Even if attorneys and support staff members who are brought in temporarily know they’re not being hired, clearly conveying the general timeline you anticipate the work will involve can help align everyone’s expectations — and give the firm some leeway if that estimate changes.
“We have been fortunate that the individuals we’ve brought in for these positions have not really wanted to hold us to a particular timeframe,” Byers says. “When we’ve had the conversation with them, it’s been, ‘This is not permanent employment, but we’re not going to have a hard date where we drop you after three months, either.’ We’ve been able to say we'll review where we're at in 60 or 90 days.”
As with any employee, there’s always a risk nonpermanent workers may abruptly leave if they’re offered a more favorable work opportunity — something Hall-Jackson is aware could happen with her contract attorney.
“If you were able to bring in somebody on a part-time or limited-duration basis, it would be an excellent way to screen them for long-term employment.”
“I’m only giving [him] 20 hours a month; it might be another attorney [saying], ‘Hey, can you do more for me?’ — which will lessen the amount of flexibility [he has] to assist me,” she says. “He also runs his own practice, so it’s a possibility that picks up. I always just ask he gives me a fair notice so I get enough time to recruit the next person.”
She’s hopeful the third-party service she worked with would be able to identify a qualified candidate as quickly as they found him. The provider will also act as a go-between if the arrangement with a contractor ever needs to be changed — which Hall-Jackson says has helped her operate a business model involving part-time virtual team members.
“If I need to say, ‘Look, this person’s not working out,’ or ‘We just don't have enough work,’ those are conversations I really don't have to have,” she says. “There’s a third-party to do that for me. If I decide I want to work from home for a week, I don’t have to feel bad that these people are sitting in my office. It’s the same thing vacation-wise; I can pack my laptop and put in a few hours at a time — knowing that I have some good, qualified people working for me who will get the job done.”
Looking to add staff to your firm or legal department? Look no further than ALA’s job bank. Employers can broadcast their open positions to legal management professionals, while job seekers can find their perfect match. Check it out at alanet.org/careers.
About the Author
Erin Brereton is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist who has written about the legal industry, business, technology and other topics for 20 years.