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Outsourcing Trends

Legal Staffing Lessons for Today’s Marketplace

By Leslie Firtell

Contract attorneys have made it possible for legal organizations to level up their teams’ expertise without increasing headcount. 

Law firms didn’t let the pandemic get in the way of profitability or performance in 2020. Profits per equity partner rose 11.5% on average in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to Thomson Reuters — and 15% among AmLaw 100 firms. Performance flourished, too, as shown by the fourth-quarter 11-point spike in the Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Economic Index (PMI). The PMI reached 69 — its highest mark since 2006 and second-highest mark ever.

In large part, this can be attributed to flexibility and resilience. Successful law firms not only accommodated dynamic client needs in this moment of unprecedented upheaval, but also made internal structural changes to ensure the work got done as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Corporate law departments made structural shifts as well. In many cases, this meant that they, like their law firm counterparts, hired contract attorneys to fill in gaps, provide niche expertise and keep costs in check.

We recognized quickly that flexibility would be one of our greatest assets during this period as well. Contract staffing needs were fluid — changing every day. In fact, more than a third of the deals we’ve closed during the pandemic were from law firms that never before considered hiring contract attorneys.

Now, law firms and legal departments that incorporated solutions such as contract staffing during the past 18 months are looking toward strengthening their organizations for the future. Here are some lessons they learned.

Level Up Your Team’s Expertise

The capability to scale up and down as demand requires is a true advantage for any legal organization. A law firm should never have to turn away business due to volume, and a corporate law team should always have the capacity to meet deadlines and commitments, regardless of how much work is in the pipeline.

Contract staffing is making this possible for many law firms and corporations. Some executed successful staffing strategies using contract attorneys in 2020. Others — about 30% of organizations using contract staff in 2021, by Tower Staffing’s count — are doing so for the first time. They are recognizing that the additional talent can help them manage a burgeoning volume of projects and cases; fill gaps due to vacation, leave and turnover; and provide expertise for special engagements.

A couple of examples come to mind: a corporate M&A practice that was overwhelmed with work and on the brink of needing to turn business away and a midsize law firm that was working 24/7 on a massive IP matter, with even the partner working on aspects of the discovery. Both resolved their issues by bringing in contract attorneys to do the routine due diligence and discovery, freeing up their partners and associates to do more substantive work.

Creative Staffing Arrangements Can Help Law Firms Win Business

For law firms, competition is tough, between firms of similar sizes as well as between large and small firms. Those looking to grow beyond their current book of business — and hang onto the business they have — are finding creative ways to blend their internal staff and contract staff. Large firms, for example, are able to lower costs and present competitive price points by contracting certain aspects of the work, while smaller firms can compete more effectively by contracting niche talent to fortify their bank of expertise.

The Contract Talent Pool Is Top-Notch

As lawyers from firms and corporations saw opportunities in changing their work and lifestyles during the pandemic, the pool of contract talent has grown. Pandemic burnout caused lawyers to pause and reassess their priorities, and many concluded that contract work could be a sustainable solution for their work-life balance goals. Need someone with expertise in regulatory compliance? Data privacy litigation? Real estate finance or M&A? Chances are good you can find the ideal candidate without adding a high-priced lawyer to your payroll.

Remote Work Is Not a Barrier to Success

One of the most important lessons the legal industry learned from the pandemic was that lawyers and other professionals can work as productively — if not more productively — when they’re away from the office. This new remote work model gives law firms and corporations the opportunity to take full advantage of contract talent, no matter where in the country they might be located.

Remember, too, that the same technology that has enabled legal professionals to work remotely also supports team building. Virtual town halls, team management, workflows and clear processes form the foundation of successful projects and partnerships.

Contract Talent Can Help Legal Departments Be More Focused and Productive

This spring, we reached out to some seasoned general counsels at large corporations to get their take on the challenges of 2020. The 2021 Tower Legal Solutions GC Survey revealed that GCs engaged with ALSPs in 2020 to help reduce outside legal spend, handle more work in-house and fill gaps resulting from hiring freezes and employee leaves. And, fully 100% of respondents reported having achieved their goals through these engagements. Given that these leaders identified controlling external legal spending and increasing internal productivity as top priorities going forward, they are likely to continue relying on contract engagements for support.

Prior to the pandemic, some corporate legal departments and law firms may not have considered using contract attorneys; they had sufficient staffing and cost wasn’t a driving issue. But the pandemic changed that. With the volatile market for talent and increase in legal demand, we expect contract staffing to be even more crucial to law firms’ strategy heading into 2022.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

Also on Attorney at Work:

“Remote Legal Teams: Best Practices for the Long Haul”

“Tech Tips: Remote Work Lessons to Take Forward From the Shutdown”

“Working From Home: Three Essentials for Law Firms”

“COVID-19 Will Bring Permanent Changes to Law Firm Recruitment and Integration”

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leslie a firtell headshot Leslie Firtell

Leslie A. Firtell is founder and CEO of Tower Legal Solutions, a full-service alternative legal services provider that focuses on project staffing, temporary attorney engagements and managed services. A 22-year veteran and pioneer of the legal staffing industry and an attorney herself, Leslie introduced the benefits of legal staffing to law firms and corporations in 2007, before it was a common practice. Follow her on Twitter @TowerLS.

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