The recession put extreme pressure on the legal marketplace, not only decreasing employment opportunities with traditional law firms but also giving rise to new career options for lawyers. Attorneys seeking employment in the new economy must think outside the box to maximize their career opportunities. New ways of delivering legal services spawned alternative provider organizations, or legal process outsourcers (LPOs), where lawyers and non-lawyers work. Additionally, contract and project attorneys are an increasingly important part of the mix.
Moreover, in the new economy, traditional law firms needed to adopt more businesslike models and behaviors to survive. This led to an increase in executive and management positions, some of which are filled by attorneys. There also are opportunities for lawyers not engaged in the traditional practice of law but where a JD is a distinct advantage, such as with vendors of new products and services to law firms and in-house legal departments.
Lawyers with good management or business skills might consider transitioning out of law practice into careers related to law firm management. As traditional firms grow larger and more like business organizations, they need many levels of administration. Former lawyers and legally trained managers now handle operations, finance, marketing, human resources and recruiting, training and development, diversity, litigation support, knowledge management, pro-bono supervision, ethics, conflicts or risk management, and so on. Some lawyers serve as general counsel to their firms, rather than handling outside clients. Similar management and administration opportunities exist for lawyers in the corporate environment, as well. Additionally, there is an increased demand for lawyers in procurement, contracts administration, compliance, and data privacy protection roles.
Transitioning from attorney to administrator, however, isn’t always easy. First, re-classification from lawyer to “staff” can be a blow to both your ego and your wallet. You have the same training and equal, if not more, legal experience than many of the lawyers in the firm, yet now you’re overhead rather than a fee-generating asset. Besides earning lower base pay, you may not be eligible for automatic pay increases or guaranteed bonuses. (But, neither are many practicing attorneys, these days.) When you’re not in a rainmaking role, it’s more difficult to prove your value to your firm to justify a raise or bonus. Nor, in many cases, is there an obvious path for career advancement. The upside is that these roles allow you to use your legal knowledge and remain active in the profession without some of the stress. The firm’s lawyers are your primary clients, and you can make an important contribution to the firm’s success.
Employers tangential to the legal market also prefer to hire attorneys over candidates without legal backgrounds for some positions. Lawyers find attractive careers in legal recruiting and coaching firms and as sales representatives for vendors to the legal profession, such as insurance, law practice technology, class action settlement administration, and other LPOs. Those employers find that candidates with inside understanding of law practice more effectively address the concerns of the profession, and that lawyers are more comfortable communicating with other lawyers.
Temporary attorneys now are a permanent part of the legal marketplace. During the economic downturn prestigious firms laid off excellent lawyers with impressive credentials, many of whom joined the ranks of contract attorneys. Moreover, law firms see the value of staffing as needed for large matters, without the expense of permanent legal talent if and when the work goes away. Corporations also embrace the temporary lawyer phenomenon as a cost-effective way to obtain legal services and encourage their outside counsel to use contract lawyers on their projects as appropriate.
Contract lawyering is a viable option for lawyers in transition. It’s an excellent way to fill gaps in your legal career. If you’re a new lawyer seeking a first job, contract lawyering provides much needed hands-on experience and exposure to legal practice, and may even lead to a permanent position. If you’re an experienced attorney who was fired, laid off, or relocated, temporary work provides an income while you search for a permanent position. If you’re starting a solo practice, project work fills your plate until you develop enough of your own clientele to keep you busy, or evens out sporadic practice flow. Temporary work also is an option for lawyers who want some time off from the full-time practice of law to raise a family, take care of their own or a family member’s health issues, or pursue other business, political, or creative ventures, or who simply aren’t willing to work full-time as a lawyer.