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Attorney at staffing agency has seen economy change firsthand

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In-House Counsel


Experts look to staffing agencies to see how employers are weathering the storm. After the economy took a hit in late 2008, companies first cut their temporary staffers, then their full-time workers, and were unlikely to hire new employees, temporary or otherwise.

But Lia Elliott, corporate counsel to Columbus-based Elwood Staffing, has seen her company's needs - and the economy - change firsthand since she started working for them when she was with Indianapolis-based Goodin Abernathy, and later as its first in-house counsel when they hired her full time a little more than three years ago.

Seeing how the economy affects her employer is only one part of her job that has been interesting since starting there, she said. She is respected by her employer, and her experience as a litigator sometimes comes into play.

Started by Dr. David L. Elwood of Columbus in 1980, the company began as a consulting firm that offered pre-employment testing and has since grown to offer temporary staffing services. In pre-screening candidates for jobs, the company offers skills tests, drug screenings, and background checks; will verify employment eligibility based on an employee's citizenship status; and will interview associates for temporary and temporary-to-hire positions for its client companies, Elliott said.

In her role as the only attorney, she said her job is split almost equally in half in terms of proactive and reactive work when it comes to the company's legal issues.

Her work involves legal issues ranging from labor and employment matters to litigation to contracts to transactional work for the company which employs approximately 200 internal staffers in 37 offices around the country, not to mention the temporary associates. While she didn't have an exact number, as temporary employees' statuses often change, she did say the company distributed approximately 30,000 W-2 tax forms in 2009.

She also tends to work with out-of-state counsel should a legal issue arise that involves labor and employment law in the other eight states where the company has a presence: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas.

She has to stay on top of the legal needs of a number of types of jobs as Elwood Staffing works with companies looking to fill light industrial jobs, such as warehouse staffing, assembly line workers, or employees to help with logistics; clerical; administrative; and professional jobs, an area Elliott said had grown in recent months.

"We're also seeing a shift in terms of contingent staff and workforce," she added. "Client companies and organizations, maybe as a result of the recession or maybe not, seem to be re-evaluating the role of their contingent needs. We're seeing clients who hadn't done this before but are starting to build into their internal structures a contingent workforce.

"Companies were hit pretty hard by the recession, and hiring a staffing company might be simpler way to adjust to the fluctuating economy," she said.

Elliott said staffing agencies absorb many of the costs to hire employees, such as unemployment insurance, worker's compensation, and health benefits.

Hiring an employee through a staffing agency also offers the temporary associate and the client company a chance to work with each other to make sure it's a good fit for both parties, she added.

Even compared to just a year ago, Elliott said the company has seen a dramatic shift in terms of how many jobs client companies have been looking to fill with Elwood temporary associates, which she cautiously said could be a result of the economy picking up again or it might still be too early to tell.

She has also helped the company as it has grown through brokering acquisitions of other staffing agencies, and negotiating contracts for office rentals.

Elliott has handled various employment issues involving the temporary associates and pays close attention to changes in the law and regulations as they apply to employees.

Most recently, she has been studying the newly passed health-care reform legislation. She said she's been working to determine how the legislation will affect the staffing industry and Elwood's client companies. She has also been keeping up with President Barack Obama's recent appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and how they may affect her clients.

Even though she's the only attorney, Elliott keeps most of the legal work in house, with the exception of litigation matters that either take place out of state, or are too large to handle with everything else she is managing.

Because those matters generally regard employment issues, she said it's not too difficult to find outside counsel because it's not a niche area of the law. When she does need to farm out some of the legal work, she will go to firms the Elwood family has used in the past or look to the Association of Corporate Counsel.

Because of her litigation experience, she said she can often see 10 steps ahead, helping her client minimize its exposure to litigation in the first place by offering effective training to prepare managers for what could happen, and by explaining to the client why they should or should not handle things the way they do.

"She can take legal concepts and then translate them back to a business owner and say, 'By the way, let's not let this happen or make this mistake again. Let's change up our business practices," said John A. Elwood, president of Elwood Staffing.

Like many in-house attorneys, Elliott started representing her current employer while at a firm and was asked to come on board based on the impression she made.

"One of the things we do is find talent for our clients so it stands to reason we should be pretty good, or we hope we're pretty good, at attracting talent to work for us internally," Elwood said.

He said Elliott was one of the people who over the years has provided a professional service to the company where, even early on, the company considered hiring her for a full-time position if and when the timing was right.

"She's smart, she can relate well to the family dynamics of a family-owned business, and she absolutely holds her own legally and also has a good knack for knowing what's practical, what you can do in the 'real world,'" he said, adding her good sense of humor is also an asset.

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