LI Feature Legal Industry/Business Management

The Legal Industry Enters the Gig Economy Age

Could your firm or legal department benefit from temporary, part-time or freelance employees?

Two in five organizations expect to increase their contingent workforce use by 2020, according to EY research; the legal industry, too, appears to be increasing its use of nonpermanent workers.

Erin Brereton

One in seven lawyers said their law firm or legal department planned to outsource more legal matters to attorneys on a contract or project basis in a 2018 Robert Half Legal survey.

Fifty-eight percent of law firms currently use part-time lawyers, and 55 percent employ contract lawyers, according to Altman Weil’s 2018 Law Firms in Transition survey. Moreover, many are finding it’s a beneficial arrangement — the effectiveness rate of those staffing structures increased from 2017 to 2018.

In addition to law firms bringing in temps for a defined time period to handle overflow work or cover for someone who’s on medical leave, some are now turning to contingent workers to boost efficiency, according to Shannon Adams, Vice President at legal consulting and talent service provider Special Counsel.

“With large organizations, getting headcount approval could take months; if a paralegal retires, oftentimes, business leaders are having to prove a business case for why they should be replaced,” Adams says. “Hiring cycles can be between a month to six to seven months. We’re seeing an uptick in companies bringing in interim talent and filling gaps on a contingency basis while a new hire is selected.”


Hiring contingent help can offer firms a number of operational advantages, ranging from cost savings to allowing project teams to quickly amp up and down.

“Hiring cycles can be between a month to six to seven months. We’re seeing an uptick in companies bringing in interim talent and filling gaps on a contingency basis while a new hire is selected.”

With a number of candidates available for contingent roles — including lawyers and staff members who are in-between full-time jobs, attorneys who are exiting Big Law, ones who want a reduced schedule as they approach retirement, and other industry members — if your organization is considering utilizing nonpermanent workers, the following considerations can help you ensure the arrangement ends up being as effective as possible.

Determining who does the work. Michael Downey, Managing Member at Downey Law Group LLC, a two-attorney firm in St. Louis, tends to favor using attorneys for projects because he says the cost difference compared to a paralegal isn’t that different — potentially as minor as $10–$15 an hour, totaling $3,000 for a 200-hour project engagement.

“They’re going to have generally more of the skills I’m likely to need; there are certain things paralegals can’t do. Lots, for example, don’t have research or writing experience that an attorney would,” he says. “Theoretically, an attorney can do anything we need to have done.”

Adams recommends firms and in-house departments examine the specific work that contingent help will be performing.

A client initially thought it needed a team of Los Angeles-based attorneys with entertainment law and licensing expertise to review contracts for a project — at a cost another staffing agency had estimated would be $200 per hour. So they approached Special Counsel for a second opinion, and the company suggested using talent who had some understanding of entertainment contracts, but weren’t necessarily all specialists.

“Our project team was a mix of paralegals and licensed attorneys at varying levels, who cost these folks close to $70 an hour,” Adams says. “Once we’re able to uncover what the job is that needs to get done, sometimes we say yes, a paralegal would be the person to execute the work, or it doesn’t matter if it’s a paralegal or JD.”

Structuring the arrangement. Downey advises letting contingent hires know when they’ll be starting and how long they’ll be needed. That way, they’ll be readily available and there won’t be surprises on either end.

Firms and legal departments may be able to treat the project as a test to see if temporary employees might be a good permanent fit.

“Having a 90-day employment period is nice because if [after that time] someone isn’t satisfying expectations, you can go your separate ways,” Downey says. “If the person works out, you can say, ‘Let’s keep the person longer.’”

Thomas J. Simeone, Partner at Simeone & Miller, LLP, five-attorney law firm in Washington, D.C., has used part-time and temporary help since founding his firm in 2002.

College students initially provided flexible assistance, without the added cost of providing benefits. The firm has since hired other college and law students, a part-time attorney and freelancers to work on its website and promote a scholarship the firm is offering.

“It’s really important to spend time onboarding people well so they can provide the maximum benefit and don’t spend a lot of time doing something you didn’t need.”

Simeone has found some responsibilities — such as handling frequent communication with clients — generally aren’t well-suited to employees who aren’t full-time.

“You can’t give a part-timer vital daily tasks; they have to fit around the times they’re there,” he says. “[And] they’re not always there to respond to people, which makes communication a little more difficult. Having one paralegal oversee people [can help] allocate time and tasks. [Then you can] say, ‘Talk to Linda,’ and she’ll say, ‘Do these things,’ or ‘Work for Paul today.”

Dedicating time to onboarding. The biggest pushback Special Counsel hears from clients about using contingent help is that training takes too long, according to Adams. She says they feel that by the time they get trained, the project will be over or the person the contingent worker is filling in for will be back.

Although, particularly in the midst of a project extensive enough to necessitate bringing on nonpermanent employees, taking time away from that work can seem counterproductive. But Downey says it can actually improve project outcomes.

“It’s really important to spend time onboarding people well so they can provide the maximum benefit and don’t spend a lot of time doing something you didn’t need,” he says. “[It can be helpful] to provide them with short written summaries of the key people and dates they can look back at as a reference if they see things they think are important.”

Proactively protecting privileged information. For contingent workers to effectively help with things like document review, attorneys may need to provide information about a case. Although, some firms may view that as a confidentiality concern.

“Usually you have to provide them with enough information about the case if you want them to do well — a case summary, here’s the title, caption number, the pending basic allegations,” Downey says. “The biggest thing with temporary attorneys is you don’t want them to have a conflict coming in, and you don't want someone who worked with your side of the case to go to the other side.”

While it might not be realistic to craft an extremely detailed noncompete arrangement for a temporary engagement, firms will likely want some protection to ensure related information isn’t disclosed, according to Downey.

“The confidentiality agreement doesn’t need to be complicated, but it’s really good to have something in writing,” he says. “If you have an agreement that says, ‘I have been retained by X law firm to work on Y project, and I agree to keep information during the retention confidential as permitted by law,’ in [some states, can offer adequate protection].”

Paying attention to ethics. Downey, who has taught legal ethics at Washington University in St. Louis, says his firm is careful to always be very transparent with clients about what the firm charges and what it pays any non-long-term employees who work on their matters.

“One of the big things some firms don’t realize is they shouldn’t be using temporary attorneys as a way to get improper profits,” he says. “People say, ‘I hear you can pay employees X and charge clients five times X, and you don’t have to tell the client.’ That’s not true.”


In addition to expense and operational efficiency benefits, contingent workers may also be able to help firms and legal departments increase current employees’ level of job satisfaction.

A labor and employment law firm Special Counsel works with investigated its high overtime costs. Adams says that the firm discovered it was spending far too much to have work that could be produced externally at a third of the cost handled by internal support staff members who, due to experience, were paid above-market salaries.

“One of the big things some firms don’t realize is they shouldn’t be using temporary attorneys as a way to get improper profits.”

“In turn, the firm realized its employees were stressed and got sick more often because they were working so many hours,” she says. “It’s not only a financial value to a firm to take work off people’s plates; it also is good for the culture of the organization to give very tenured, very valued employees a breather.”

Clients may also experience positive effects. “Client service can be the first thing out the window; maybe people aren’t as quick to respond to emails or return calls,” Adams says. “If contingent workers can take some of the work from those people, they’re now more available, which is a more delightful experience for clients. That’s what helps you retain your market share — happy clients don’t leave; they stay and give you more work.”

Hiring contingent workers isn’t an automatic fix for every firm or legal department, or every business problem. The system may not be a good fit in scenarios where having turnover on a project or role would mean institutional knowledge was lost, Adams says. Furthermore, in areas with high demand for certain skills, finding temporary or part-time help for a reasonable cost may be challenging.

However, in today’s post-recession legal services market, that may not be an issue for a number of firms and in-house legal departments, according to Downey.

“The economy has been tough,” he says. “A lot of law school graduates own a firm that’s not that busy, or have free time or a family situation where they’re not able to work full-time. There are plenty of people around who are happy to have decent employment for decent pay.”