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Use of contract attorneys rising in importance and stature

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contract-001-15col.jpg Scott Collins of Proteus Discovery Group says contract attorney work requires strong skills in law and technology. (IL Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)

After clerking for various law firms in Indianapolis and taking a brief turn practicing family law, Scott Collins finally found a position he loved.

It combined critical thinking and legal reasoning with technology and, at times, offered a schedule that gave him several days off each week to spend with his new baby. He was a contract attorney doing document review, and while conventional wisdom has equated that job with wearing a scarlet letter, he has seen a fundamental shift toward acceptance.

The work has become common as firms increasingly rely on the short-term help and as more companies offer these kinds of legal services. Collins believes attorneys are now realizing the value of turning document review over to skilled lawyers who like doing it rather than having an associate shuffle through the emails and contracts just trying to log hours.

Altman Weil Inc.’s annual survey of law firm managing partners across the country mirrors what Collins is seeing. The consulting firm has noted a trend toward hiring contract attorneys and that a growing number of law firms view interim workers as a permanent part of the legal profession.

In its 2016 Law Firms in Transition survey, Altman Weil found that overcapacity remains a problem as legal offices struggle to keep their attorneys busy. Firms seem to be addressing this headache with what the survey called “basic labor arbitrage,” or shifting work to less-expensive lawyers including contract attorneys.

Fifty-six percent of the firms surveyed rely on contract attorneys to meet demand. Also, reflecting the growing acceptance of this portion of the gig economy, 67.8 percent consider the use of contract attorneys to be permanent.

Comparatively, 39 percent of law firms reported hiring contract attorneys in the 2010 survey and 52 percent expected the use of short-term help to become a permanent part of their staffing plans.

Another driver behind the rise of contract attorneys is the need for law firms to reduce costs. Lawyers doing contract work for a law firm typically are paid less per hour than a first-year associate.

humke-steve-mug.jpg Humke

Steven Humke, chief managing partner at Ice Miller LLP, said his firm has been utilizing short-term help since before the Great Recession as a way to reduce overall costs. The routine tasks, like document review or drafting motions for discovery, that come with many large complex projects do not have to done by an attorney who has lots of experience and expertise, he explained. Such work can be funneled to less-expensive contract attorneys.

Still, Humke thinks carefully before hiring contract attorneys. If there are attorneys at the firm who do not have full plates when a new project pops up, he is likely to enlist them. He said since the firm is already paying someone to work, it does not want “another mouth to feed.”

‘The future of the profession’

While law firms pick up short-term help as needed, some legal services companies heavily rely on contract attorneys. Proteus Discovery Group, founded in Indianapolis, uses contract attorneys almost exclusively to do work that comes from its client law firms and businesses.

biederman-ray-mug Biederman

Ray Biederman, chief operating officer of Proteus, said changes in the legal profession fostered the new industry into which his company fits.

Law firms need these kinds of niche lawyers for large cases but such work is not coming into firms all the time. When complex litigation or a merger and acquisition does arrive, law firms can assign the document review or contract analysis to Proteus, which will assemble the team at its office to do the work.

The legal startup has a pool of skilled attorneys it can call upon quickly to meet the demands of whatever activity comes through the door.

“That’s the future of the profession with regard to getting through the data,” Biederman said of contract attorneys. “The work they do is essential to really understanding litigation and helping other attorneys focus on the substance of the litigation.”

Collins, now employed full time at Proteus as a project manager, keeps a list of the contract attorneys on a color-coded spreadsheet. When a job comes in, he uses the list to identify the best attorneys and then starts calling their cellphones and emailing them. The key qualities a successful contract attorney has to have are speed and accuracy.

Anne Roebel did not plan on being a contract attorney but after graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, her first job was a short-term project at Ice Miller. Twelve years later, she is still a contract attorney doing primarily document review exclusively for the firm.

The flexible hours are appealing, but she noted workload can change dramatically from one project to the next. Sometimes, she said, a rush job comes in that requires “every hour we have” for weeks. In addition to being able to handle a crush of work, contract attorney must also understand technology.

“It’s important to have some knowledge of software, some level of comfort with computers to do this job because a lot of your ability to do document review is based on your ability to work with software which is always confusing,” she said.

Biederman dispelled the notion that attorneys doing contract work do so because they cannot find a full-time job. These lawyers have high skills that enable them to sort through hundreds of documents each hour and pull the relevant data. Even as technology advances, Proteus does not expect the demand for short-term help to wane.

“I see certain aspects of this becoming more automated over time,” Biederman said, “but there is no replacement for the judgment calls that need to be made by someone trained and by someone that can be really detailed-oriented, is fast-moving and can make good judgment calls consistently over time.”

No foot in the door

Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP brings in contract attorneys not only for routine discovery work, but also enlists lawyers with expertise in a niche area of the law on a short-term basis to help in a particular practice group.

williams-shannon-mug.jpg Williams

Using contract attorneys “keeps the workforce at a good and profitable level while maintaining high-quality service for our clients,” said Shannon Williams, chief legal talent officer at Bingham.

Along with having skills and work experience, Williams said contract attorneys must also realize the job will end. Lawyers who come with the hope that the project will lead to a full-time position will be less satisfied with the assignments and possibly feel their contribution is not appreciated.

Hae Lee Cho, a 2013 Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law graduate, has no expectation of a full-time job. She likes the variety, working on different issues for different clients that comes with being a contract attorney, and she likes the casual atmosphere. If she were an associate at a firm, she believes she might not be so free to speak up and interact with established attorneys.

Most importantly, being a contract attorney gives her the time to nurture her other passion of being a florist. With weekends guaranteed to be free, she is able to create bouquets for weddings.

Cho is satisfied but noted other pressures that may drive her to look for something permanent. “I’m happy where I am, but my spouse wants me to get a job with benefits,” she said.•

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