Law department talent models continue to evolve in response to the question so often posed at inside counsel conferences: “How can general counsel handle increasing compliance requirements and other legal needs, while meeting stricter budgetary goals?” Some experts offer process- and technology-oriented solutions. And plenty of discussion focuses on improving outside counsel relationships.

Nonetheless, general counsel tell me that, bottom line, the question above leads to this simple math result: more work + budget caps = work overload for their core team of inside counsel.  Yet, the reality at many law departments is static headcount. Attorneys who retire or depart are indeed replaced, but companies remain incredibly resistant to actually adding staff.

With inside counsel therefore pushed to their productivity limits, and use of outside counsel curbed by budgetary concerns, general counsel are incorporating freelance attorneys into the mix. The evolving law department talent model has many different looks. Companies are using freelancers, both on-site and off-site, via new model recruiting firms, as well as directly engaging independents with valuable subject matter expertise. If found via a third-party source, most freelancers are W2 employees of the outside firm, not independent contractors.

The talent model is now essentially a core team of inside counsel, plus an elastic roster of high-quality supplemental attorneys who add muscle as needed to the law department. The economics make sense when companies use freelancers as an alternative to calling outside counsel.

Here is a best practices guide to making this talent model work.

  1. Follow the money. General counsel worry that good freelance talent won’t remain available as needed. Shoot for what I call Goldilocks rates (“just right,” not law firm high and not contract attorney low). When freelancers are paid in line with in-house compensation, they value the work and are much more likely to maintain an ongoing relationship.
  2. Treat freelancers like one happy family. Give freelancers email addresses. Include them whenever possible in department meetings. Introduce them to internal clients as adjunct members of the law department, and not as outsiders. Use confidentiality agreements to mitigate any risks associated with truly incorporating an off-payroll team member.
  3. Find a key reference or trusted source. Incorporating new attorneys poses some discomfort until they back up resume credentials with actual performance. The best practice here is no different than when choosing outside counsel. Do some due diligence, check a freelancer’s references or use a third-party talent provider with a track record of successfully serving law departments.
  4. Differentiate between freelancers and job seekers. Many excellent freelancers are inside counsel who would really prefer a more traditional job. These attorneys are best used for gap fill needs and short-term projects. A true freelancer prefers a flexible, off-payroll role and is therefore much more likely to be available for recurring needs over a period of years versus just months. Both kinds of supplemental attorneys are valuable, but it’s important to understand expectations and commitment levels up front.
  5. Establish a bi-weekly scheduled check-in. Appoint a core in-house team member to be the primary supervising contact with each freelancer. A 30-minute scheduled call with the freelancer, especially if the work is being performed off-site, is very helpful in keeping expectations aligned and projects on-track. I recommend a bi-weekly call, but the main point is to maintain a formal touch base schedule.

Next month, I will stay on this topic generally, but with a focus on the flip side of the freelancer coin: advice for inside counsel who may be considering freelance work as a long-term career choice, and not just to fill a gap in the middle of a traditional job search.