If you are fully employed, valued by your employer and your company’s financials look good, I ask you to please still read this column completely. Perhaps you will never need the advice that follows for your own career, and I stress perhaps, but this column may inform how you interface with colleagues and job seekers who are now free agents. Also read this column if you are in charge of engaging contract attorneys.
Even as traditional law department hiring is likely to pick up, an enormous oversupply of well qualified attorneys is here to stay. Combine oversupply of talent with corporate America’s mission to rein in legal costs generally, and we get a swelling pool of talented free agents who work as-needed in what, for many, is a scary “new normal” landscape. I borrow the phrase “new normal” from my friend Paul Lippe, CEO of Legal OnRamp, and I encourage you to read his monthly take on structural changes within the profession at www.legalonramp.com.
For our part, we will now focus on two concrete agenda items. First, for lawyers in free agent mode, how do you improve the volume and quality of your engagements? Secondly, for law departments, how do you access and choose the right free agents?
For lawyers in free agent mode, start by embracing your circumstance–let go of the notion that you are primarily searching for traditional employment. This advice should be especially helpful for senior level in-house counsel who face the “overqualified” label when applying for direct hire positions (for more on the overqualified dilemma, also see: “The Aging Workforce“). I’m not suggesting that you give up; on the contrary, my advice should be liberating. Job seekers limit themselves to direct hire positions that are usually posted publicly, can take months to fill and require winning a competitive process over hundreds of other applicants.
For a free agent lawyer, almost every company presents an opportunity for meaningful work. Many of your former co-workers, employers and friends in the business community can use your skills, so long as they don’t have to hire you. No human resources person or headcount approval required.
Simply letting your contact network know that you are available as a free agent will get the ball rolling. If you can secure in-house assignment work on your own, then you gain some control with respect to negotiating your hourly or fixed fee rate. Depending on your location, the nature of the work and other factors, the going rate for free agent in-house counsel work ranges from a low of about $50 per hour for crappy low-level document review work, to a high of $200 per hour for assignments with real client contact and responsibility. For readers who believe they command a market value above $200 per hour: You don’t. Once a company is willing to pay above $200, it is much easier to call outside counsel and work out a deal with them versus incorporating a free agent onto the team. In fact, getting $200 is unlikely outside of New York City for free agent work. So, if the range I’m quoting is simply unacceptable to you, then your best option is to find a branded law firm that will take you on-board in an Of Counsel capacity. If you can make rain from that platform at a law firm’s billing rate, go for it.
Many of you will discover the ability to network and land assignment work directly. But I realize it’s not easy. Therefore, you may also want to explore the variety of middlemen who serve the corporate appetite for as-needed talent. Your options are no longer limited to the volume-oriented temporary staffing firms that primarily handle document review work. Now, almost every traditional legal recruiting firm has established a contract attorney service line. Many legal recruiters are old school and get nervous about mixing the brand message of traditional placement with “temporary” work. For example, the well known search firm Major Lindsey & Africa calls its contract attorney offering Inside Edge Legal. I’m less nervous than most, so my contract attorney offering is closely aligned with our permanent search company. I view the service combination as a logical response to what our law department clients want. We have twelve free agent in-house counsel and counting working on our payroll with law department clients now.
However, you will make less money via a middleman. Contract attorney services, on the low end and the high end, must quote rates in the range mentioned above in order to land assignments, and almost one-third of the rate covers payroll costs, insurance and the search firm’s profit. Moreover, signing up with one or more search firms won’t assure a steady flow of work. Not only are you limited to the clients generated by those firms, but you are also in competition with others who have signed up to receive assignments.
Long-term readers of this column know my reputation for candor, and I hope I am delivering that for you now. I respect you too much to paint free agent lawyering as a happy development for your career, if what you really want is a traditional job. The glass half full message here is that quality in-house work is available for those who want it. The law department’s appetite for free agent lawyering is only growing, and it is being served by a very capable and well credentialed talent pool. Law departments tend to respect and value on-site contract attorneys in a way that law firms don’t, and corporate clients are getting pretty good at incorporating free agent resources into daily work flow.
If you are reading this column from the perspective of a law department leader who may appreciate some best practices advice on using free agent lawyers, thank you for getting this far into the column. I hope that simply reading this piece is helpful in terms of appreciating the challenging career circumstance of many contract attorneys, especially those at a senior level. That is the right segue to some discussion now addressing your needs as the client.
Finding the right free agent lawyer(s) for your law department is all about engaging professionals who psychologically accept, and better yet embrace, their role as a contract attorney. It’s a given that you will only engage lawyers with on-point experience and subject matter expertise. But you need to avoid big personalities and whiners. To do so, here is the best possible advice: Interview counter-intuitively.
Typically, winners in an interview process are those who demonstrate a high degree of self-confidence and some charisma. Don’t be charmed into taking someone who will spend half of her time on-site lobbying for a traditional job or more work. You don’t want the constant talker. Say yes instead to free agent lawyers who exude a quiet confidence; use lawyers with “people pleaser” personalities who may be more reserved and less verbose in an interview environment. Use truly thorough reference checking, directly or via your search firm if you use one, to verify quality of work and team player attributes.
Really good contract attorneys usually don’t come with rainmaker personalities. You may know former colleagues and others who fit this bill, and you can engage them directly. Otherwise, more selection is readily available from recruiting firms that are essentially handling the rainmaking duties for much of the free agent lawyer community. When using a contract attorney via a search firm, just make sure the free agent lawyer is being paid appropriately. Someone who is receiving a fair hourly or fixed fee rate, preferably in line with her income history, is most likely to stay with an assignment, appreciate the opportunity and provide the highest level of service.