State of the Union: Alternative Legal Staffing Trends in 2022

6 Min Read By: Leslie A. Firtell

Staffing trends look a bit different for law firms and legal departments in 2022, as the tumult of the past two years settles into more of a business-as-usual mode. It’s a new brand of “usual” for sure—one in which remote and hybrid work models are the norm, and attorneys have made their expectations of better work-life balance clear. As leaders navigate talent wars and heavy workloads (often with limited budgets), more agile staffing solutions are complementing permanent hiring. Alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) are playing a central role in connecting these leaders to contract talent to help round out their teams, bolster productivity, and keep costs in line.

The growing need for specialized lawyers. The circumstances of the past two years—an unprecedented surge in adoption of digital communication tools and automated workflows, changes in workplace/HR policies, commercial contract disputes, etc.—have brought new issues to the fore. Attorneys specializing in data privacy, contract law, M&A, regulatory compliance, employment law, digital technologies, real estate, finance, and other areas of expertise are in demand. In fact, there are layers within many of these areas that require even greater specialization.

Fortunately, supply is keeping up with demand: As more lawyers left their permanent positions to join the contract talent pool in 2020 and 2021, ALSPs have been able to focus their recruitment efforts more tightly to pinpoint ideal candidates. Due to the exceptional value these candidates bring to legal teams, matches often begin as temporary assignments but then grow into lengthier stints or even permanent positions. A corporation that frequently launches new products, for example, isn’t likely to let go of a brilliant regulatory attorney regardless of how, and under what type of arrangement, that attorney came to them.

Renewed focus on how associates’ time is being spent. As legal leaders take a fresh look at how efficiently their operations are running, they are scrutinizing who is doing the work. They understand that paying an associate to carry out routine tasks that could be delegated to a contract attorney with no compromise to quality is a waste of both dollars and the associate’s time. By strategically assigning work to contract attorneys, their organizations are becoming more productive for less money.

For years, law firms and corporations have leveraged this formula for managed document review, due diligence, and other routine tasks. Today, they’re bringing in more outside help to work on NDAs, MSAs, SOWs, digital agreements, licensing agreements, and other contracts. In addition, a growing number of law firms have begun turning to their ALSPs for junior-level contract attorneys they can train to fulfill a particular client’s needs. They can then bill these lawyers out to that client at a much more reasonable rate than they could an on-staff associate.

Increasing reliance on ALSPs. Close to four out of five U.S. law firms (79%) and nearly three out of four U.S. corporations (71%) used an ALSP in 2020, says the Alternative Legal Service Providers 2021 report. The report findings indicate that working with ALSPs has grown to become a mainstream—rather than alternative—staffing strategy, according to Thomson Reuters, which published the report in partnership with The Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law and the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.

What’s more, law firms and corporations that may have used temporary staffing solutions sparingly in the past, or that tried them for the first time during the pandemic, are now turning to them repeatedly. They’ve discovered that meshing the talents of their internal team with contract attorneys can help them improve their processes and workflows, lower costs, and achieve consistently outstanding results. As these organizations move forward, their perception of contract staffing will continue to evolve as they discover more varied opportunities to put it to use.

One of those opportunities is filling the void left when an attorney goes on leave. Increasingly, law firms and corporations are planning for these contract staffing needs several months in advance. Perhaps this is because so many legal teams were abruptly caught short-handed at moments during the past two years, and they never want to be in that situation again—or it may simply reflect growing confidence in temporary staffing. Leaders are also more likely to recognize that they shouldn’t rely on old protocols of divvying up work among peers when an attorney is out. We’ve all seen the fallout from attorney burnout, and no one wants to further fuel that fire.

Happier, less stressed talent. Speaking of attorney burnout, 2022 is seeing a new cohort of contract lawyers who are definitely not suffering from that particular affliction. These highly qualified pros are raring to go, as they have chosen to infuse their careers with balance while continuing to make a good living. Think about it: If a contractor is making $125 an hour, and they’re working 2,000 hours a year (40 hours a week x 50 weeks), that’s a run rate of $250,000—not a bad income, particularly when it comes with flexible terms. (They can often achieve that steady influx of work by working through an ALSP, which may also offer benefits and other perks.)

Even if they are making less than they were before, many contract attorneys are willing to make the trade-off: less money for more time to travel, write a book, start a business, or pursue other interests. And just like law firms and corporate counsel, many contractors are seeking “try before you buy” relationships that enable them to work with different teams to see where they might find an ideal fit for a permanent position.

The power of relationships. An important lesson many legal organizations learned in the chaotic environment of 2020–2021 was that incorporating contract attorneys into an overall staffing strategy requires an engaged staffing partner. Identifying and hiring talent to fill a particular need should never be a one-off transaction, but rather part of an ongoing strategy to have a strong, collaborative team in place. In 2022, these organizations are looking to solidify their relationships with their ALSPs to achieve long-term staffing success.

Good ALSPs are doing their part by getting to know their clients’ people, culture, and organizational structure well, so that they recognize a good fit when they see it, regardless of whether it’s to fill a particular role at a particular time or in anticipation of future needs. When a great résumé comes across their desk, they should know exactly where that candidate belongs and reach out proactively to let their client know about that talent before anyone else has a chance to swoop them up. This type of close relationship is essential to staffing success.

Overall, the outlook for legal staffing through 2022 and beyond is positive. While there are still issues to navigate—heavy workloads, attorney burnout, talent wars, and the prioritization of work-life balance—agile, cost-effective solutions are at hand. Corporate legal departments and law firms that strategically dovetail in-house and contract talent will be poised to win the day.

By: Leslie A. Firtell

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