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Lisa Puntillo gave up her position as a senior counsel at San Francisco’s Hanson, Bridgett, Marcus, Vlahos & Rudy while she was expecting her second child in March 2002. “Much as I liked my firm, I just didn’t see how it was going to work for me,” says Puntillo. “It was too much of a time commitment.” But rather than drop out of the legal profession altogether, Puntillo took on short-term contract assignments for various law firms, including Hanson Bridgett. Working out of her home, Puntillo, who is now pregnant with her third child, spends five to 10 hours a week writing briefs, demurrers and complaints. For years, people like Puntillo have been the classic example of the contract attorney. But in the current down economy, a new generation of lawyers is turning to contract work. Unlike their counterparts, who chose contract work for the quality of life advantages, many attorneys temping today are victims of layoffs or office closures looking for whatever legal work is available. For these law firm refugees, switching to the contract life means getting used to uncertain hours and decidedly less sexy kinds of work. But contracting also provides a bridge that’s carrying many attorneys across today’s rough economic waters, and allowing some lawyers to reposition themselves. “I think there are more people doing contract work who are in transition — people who were downsized and are trying to carefully consider their next move,” says Kelly Francis, the executive director of On Call Counsel, which specializes in placing contract attorneys at law firms. According to Francis, contract work generally pays $45 an hour and higher, with the type of project and the client’s budget and needs ultimately dictating the rate. For one laid-off Bay Area associate who wished to remain anonymous, the contract experience provided a chance to shift his practice from corporate law to intellectual property. After losing his job at the end of 2002, the attorney spent several fruitless months searching for another full-time position doing corporate work. Eventually, he decided to do some contracting, and landed an assignment doing document production on a patent litigation case. The steady 9-to-6 workdays allowed him to spend the evenings and weekends studying for the patent bar, which he recently passed. The attorney describes his contracting experience as a win-win situation. “I’m not sure it’s something that I would want to do long term, but at least for this transitional type of thing, it’s definitely enhanced my marketability.” Theresa McPherson, the founder of Mondial Consulting, which manages contract attorneys on litigation projects for law firms and companies, reckons that 25 percent of the contractors she comes in contact with are victims of layoffs or office shutdowns. “Those folks are clearly a creative talent pool that needs to be harnessed by the legal community,” McPherson says. To be sure, the sluggish economy has meant that firms have been slow to bring lawyers of any kind on board, whether on a full-time or temporary basis. But some contract attorney recruiters predict that firms will increasingly rely on temporary legal help as the economy starts to gather steam. Not surprisingly, the majority of contract assignments these days seem to be in litigation. People involved in the hiring process note that this doesn’t necessarily disqualify laid-off corporate attorneys from getting contract work. “If you’re doing a privilege review of materials, it may not be as crucial to have a litigation attorney doing that,” says Mark Petersen, the vice chair of San Francisco’s Farella Braun & Martel. Someone who was formerly a transactional lawyer or an in-house counsel would still possess the general legal knowledge and skills necessary to do a privilege review job, says Petersen, who says that his 120-lawyer firm has retained up to a half-dozen contract attorneys at a time in the past. DOCUMENT REVIEW Of course, the type of work available to contractors often isn’t as sophisticated or challenging as the tasks that full-time associates handle. Much of the work, say contractors, involves some sort of document review. “It’s a little bit more perfunctory,” says Vladimir Radovanov, a Los Angeles litigator who started contracting in December 2000 after the firm he worked for decided to focus exclusively on patent prosecution and let him go. But Radovanov notes that it’s not unusual for contractors who show initiative to wind up with some higher-end responsibilities. And the more experienced the attorney, the higher the quality of the assignments. Puntillo says that most of her contract projects involve the same type of legal writing and research that she did as a full-time litigator, only on a smaller scale. Meanwhile, former full-time attorneys accustomed to the comforts of a steady paycheck must also adapt to the sporadic, unpredictable nature of contract work. But contract attorneys note that temporary assignments occasionally turn into long-term gigs. William Lies became a contractor after the San Francisco firm he worked for dissolved in 1997. One of his first assignments was a case that was supposed to last a few months but instead stretched on for six years. “It’s an extraordinary circumstance that it lasted so long,” says Lies, who took advantage of the greater flexibility in contract work hours to launch a photography business on the side. Similarly, Radovanov’s first assignment as a contract attorney kept him busy for nearly 16 months, and included the occasional 80-hour week. “It wasn’t a break on hours, that’s for sure,” says Radovanov. Since he was paid hourly, however, Radovanov’s longer workdays meant overtime pay, including double his regular hourly wage on the 13th consecutive hour at work. In the few months since the assignment ended, Radovanov has launched his own solo practice, which he is supplementing with occasional contract tasks. Building up a small book of business will help in the event that he decides to return to a full-time law firm job, he explains. “I wouldn’t mind building up a little portfolio of clients and maybe bring them with me.”

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