Dramatic changes across the legal landscape today are transforming the ways employers and lawyers work and operate. One prominent trend among corporate in-house legal departments and law firms is the increasing engagement of interim legal staffing. While it’s not a new concept, employers are far more accepting of the movement today than ever before, to the extent that it is already a reliable and trusted staffing method. Interim legal staffing brings flexibility and cost savings that have become necessities for most employers, and for many, it's an effective way to scale the business.
The development, which is evolving into a permanent and industrywide staffing model, is largely the after-effect of workforce changes due to the 2008 Great Recession and the global pandemic. These events were highly disruptive in altering legal staffing requirements, only to change again as markets rebounded. “When certain hard-hit areas of the economy eventually began to return, legal work in those areas came back quickly, and firms found themselves shorthanded in certain practice areas,” said Steven Lynch, General Manager, Legal Center of Expertise Leader.
Expense cutting and record layoffs to reduce overhead forced many lawyers to pursue other employment options. As this occurred, lifestyle decisions further drove many lawyers to voluntarily exit payroll status in favor of the freedom to control their work lives as legal contractors, choosing jobs that allow continued remote work status, and even launching their own firms as corporate and big law return-to-office protocols have come into play.
While these major disruptions have been difficult, the evolution of interim legal recruitment and staffing has created some major benefits for companies, firms, and legal professionals.
An abundance of interim legal talent
The last recession and COVID-19 were not easy or painless for either employers or lawyers, but the dynamics are responsible for creating the robust, evergreen talent pipeline that employers are now tapping to quickly meet legal staffing requirements without having to onboard new hires. There was a time when corporate leaders and law firm partners were reluctant to engage independent lawyers, due to their perception that freelancers lacked experience. That is certainly not the case today.
Today’s interim lawyers are accomplished practitioners who hail from solid backgrounds in the corporate world, at law firms (including Big Law), in private practices, and from government entities. They also include elite law professors, as well as semi-retired and retired lawyers with decades of experience who still want to work.
Employers have immediate access to exceptional talent to fill essential roles, from interim general counsel to interim legal counsel, part-time attorneys and a full bench of other critical players. In turn, opportunities abound for talented lawyers who are ready to hit the ground running on a contract or temporary basis, with many more options than they had 15 years ago.
This growing legal staffing model is also more flexible, timesaving and cost-efficient than filling permanent roles.
Interim legal staffing: offsetting hiring challenges and associate turnover
It’s no secret that the war for top talent is more competitive than ever in the legal industry. It’s also a reality that, just like in many other industries, the legal profession is experiencing high turnover rates. In early 2022, the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal reported that associate compensation increased 11.3% through November 2021 on a rolling 12-month basis, but during the same time period, despite rising salaries, the associate turnover rate for law firms reached 23.2%.
The Great Resignation continues to leave talent voids, and even though employers are taking steps to retain talent, such as improve their company cultures, increase employee satisfaction, reduce lawyer burnout, pay higher wages and adopt flexible work models, such goals are not achieved overnight for any company. In the meantime, legal departments and law firms are feeling the pain of not only talent gaps but also experience gaps left by lawyers who are no longer full-time employees.
In greatly expanding numbers, law firms and in-house legal organizations are contracting with legal consultants and lawyers to strengthen their teams when workload increases or they need specific expertise that they currently lack. According to the 2019 Altman Weil report on Law Firms in Transition, 59.8% of the 362 firms surveyed said the use of contract lawyers is a permanent trend. Nearly half (48%) were currently using contract lawyers and 62% said the use of contract lawyers has delivered a significant improvement in their firm’s performance.