From the President: Life as a Contract Attorney (and Why Contract Attorneys Are Not Third-Class Lawyers)
by Ilene Lin Bloom
As the economy continues to slowly make a recovery, the use of contract attorneys is a good opportunity for law firms to deal with staffing needs without incurring the costs and commitment associated with hiring an attorney full time. This is what I have learned in terms of the positive aspects of contract work and what I would suggest to both firms and contract attorneys to make the relationship a mutually positive one.
Contract Attorneys are Real Lawyers. I think there is an assumption that all contract attorneys are unable to find a "regular" job. There are many reasons people take on contract work at one point or another in their legal careers. The reasons may include flexibility—to be with family, perform pro bono or other volunteer work, or pursue other interests. Also, in this economy, more and more excellent lawyers may find themselves unemployed and may seek contract work while they undertake their job search for more permanent employment. Qualified attorneys, although working on a temporary basis, should be given a chance to perform well and demonstrate their abilities. Assignments to contract attorneys should not be viewed as sub-par work, because a client will benefit from all necessary work that is performed with diligence, attention to detail, and consistency.
Contract Attorneys Perform Important Work. I was always impressed by those firms I worked for that truly valued the work of contract attorneys. A firm demonstrates this by providing appropriate training, guidance, supervision, and compensation. Although some may feel that document review is a mundane, low-skill task, discovery is an important part of the case and often requires keen judgment. Complex issues often are involved and the stakes are high in terms of protecting privileged documents.
Contract Attorneys Should be Embraced as Part of the Firm. It would be great if all firms treated their contract attorneys as if they were regular members of the firm. This does not necessarily mean providing benefits or health insurance. Rather, I am talking about providing a reasonable work environment—that is, not placing the contract attorneys in the dark closet at the end of the hall where they are not to be seen nor heard by the rest of the firm. Even small gestures go a long way in cultivating loyalty and fostering a positive and productive work environment. This includes firm attorneys making contract attorneys feel welcome in simple ways, such as saying hello and introducing themselves. At one firm, I was even invited, as a contract attorney, to the annual firm ski trip. Although I was the only contract attorney who actually went, I had a great time getting to know the other attorneys.
For Contract Attorneys
Take Advantage of the Many Opportunities Contract Work Can Provide. Contract work presents the opportunity to learn new areas of law, gain exposure to many subject matters, and learn from others. This is also an opportunity to make contacts. Although I don’t think it is extremely common for a contract attorney to be hired as an associate after completing a contract project, it has been known to happen. In any event, being hired for one contract project can turn into another contract project if you perfom well.
Take Your Assignments Seriously. If you think you are above doing document review, or any other assignment, you should not take the position. Contract work is an opportunity to demonstrate a strong work ethic, endurance, and ability to focus on the task at hand.
Professionalism is as Important as Ever. In every work setting, it is important to maintain your professionalism. This includes putting work first, committing to generating an excellent work product, and not distracting your fellow contract attorneys from the job. At times a contract position may seem less formal, but this is not the venue to share your deepest, darkest secrets, which can be distracting and uncomfortable to all. Likewise, you would not go to any other job dressed in your pajamas or the equivalent. If you are hired by a firm, even temporarily, it is your responsibility to represent the firm in a positive way.
Being a contract attorney is not for everyone, but it is possible for all contract attorneys to dispel any stigma attached to being one by exhibiting the utmost professionalism and producing exceptional work.
I would like to thank Melanie Snyder for her assistance with this article. I would be happy to discuss this topic with you further. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. D