The Evolution of Interim Legal Staffing

interim legal staffing

The legal industry has long been known to resist change. When change does happen, it’s mostly in incremental steps versus dramatic leaps and bounds. However, over the past 10 years, recent and significant external forces—such as the Great Recession of 2008–2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic—have prompted even the most conventional naysayers to get creative and retool their approach to engaging legal talent. In the wake of these global crises, we’ve observed a gradual but distinct shift in the candidate market.

A revelation about the traditional legal career path

Back in 2010 and 2011, as the industry was still struggling to get back on its feet after the recession, legal professionals became acutely aware that traditional career paths and permanent positions were not the security blankets they had once been. With the economic downturn and subsequent upheaval, more attorneys recognized the benefits of interim work—specifically the ability to choose what, when, and where you practice.

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The interim employment model, historically reserved for e-discovery engagements, became an attractive option for career-focused legal professionals. An increasing number of attorneys realized that taking on an interim engagement during a professional or personal transition provided more variety in their work, as well as the ability to pick and choose what projects they took on. Interim work became a bona fide option for all types of attorneys at all stages, whether semi-retired, in-between jobs, or just looking for more flexibility in their career.

In-house legal departments were early adopters of the interim attorney model, using that talent for needs like overflow work, niche projects, and leave coverage. They realized quickly that the ability to tap into a large network of talented legal experts—as needed—could yield major cost savings, as well as greater agility. It seemed to signal the dawn of a new era in legal staffing.

2020 brings another industry upheaval

In that fateful spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created chaos in the market once again. Between the doomsday fears brought on by a novel virus and the move to remote work, people started engaging with their work differently. This was particularly true for more junior attorneys. Work-life balance took higher priority, and people sought more meaning in their job. Compensation was still important, but it was taking a backseat to things like flexibility, mental health, and corporate mission.

Smith-Alsobrook & Associates

Candidates began to recognize the benefits of looking outside the typical career path (i.e., going to a top firm and then opting for either the partner track or going in-house). They viewed interim roles as a way to gain specific skills or industry experience in a less-linear fashion. Interim work provided the freedom they sought and allowed them to see if a position was a good fit before they made a full-time commitment. It also gave attorneys the chance to do work that aligned with their personal passions and interests.

How have legal candidates evolved since?

Now – as many companies call for a return to the office, and amid economic headwinds like rising inflation and a potential recession on the horizon – the pool of top legal talent willing to consider interim engagements is steadily growing as more attorneys become comfortable with following a non-traditional path. Attorneys at all levels are emboldened to be creative in their career progression. While interim legal staffing may have originated in the e-discovery and due diligence document review space, it now encompasses technical and high-end assignments of all kinds.

Today’s legal job seekers are smart, savvy, and self-assured. They know who they are and what they’re looking for. They ask thoughtful, long-range questions to assess whether a firm or company is a good fit for their unique needs. Even as market dynamics change, job seekers are ensuring they’re looking at job opportunities—permanent or interim—through a more holistic lens that aligns with their long-term career goals and personal needs.

Are clients keeping in step with these dramatic market shifts?

The answer is that it depends. Healthcare, life sciences, and tech companies have long been leaders in understanding the strategic benefits of interim. These organizations are leveraging the breadth and depth of the available interim talent pool to truly tap into the best candidates in the industry.

Some organizations and law firms, however, have not quite kept pace with the changing marketplace. There are still certain clients that continue to subscribe to the traditional industry mindset, which emphasizes credentials and top-tier law schools and doesn’t embrace the hybrid or remote work approach.

Law firms, especially, tend to be risk-averse and wary of deviating from the “usual” way of doing things. It’s part of the nature of firms; their internal mechanics just grind more slowly. It takes a long time to undo mindsets, economic models (namely the billable hour), and values that are so deeply ingrained.

Change is the way forward 

As seasoned legal recruiters, we understand that change brings challenges. But like it or not, change is happening. To maximize their ability to attract talent in this candidate-centric market, companies and firms must strongly consider alternatives to conventional hiring practices. They need to start adapting—not just to the interim concept, but also to new ways of engaging their workforce. Failing to do so will mean missing out on some spectacular legal talent.

No business is recession-proof. But the interim model is ideal for helping companies and firms weather market volatility. With the threat of yet another recession looming large, it’s a tool our clients can’t afford to ignore. Interim legal talent can be a valuable option when they:

  • Have a special project that needs attention
  • Are in a hiring freeze/don’t have headcount, but still need people
  • Experience dramatic ebbs and flows in their workflow
  • Have an unexpected workplace departure

An interim attorney can also help employers strategically fill the gaps during a transition and keep business moving forward while they find a permanent hire. We’re seeing a larger number of organizations seeking interim placements at the executive level, such as GC and CLO.

Attorneys, for their part, should be open to interim work not as a “Plan B,” but as an opportunity to augment their skills and enhance their resume. Notably, many organizations are now experimenting with “audition” or “try-before-you-buy” approaches, allowing both clients and candidates to consider their options before making a commitment. Contract work can help attorneys diversify their knowledge and offers inroads to companies and firms they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. For those looking to move into a different role or practice area, interim roles can be a vehicle for making that transition.

Once considered a fallback, interim talent has evolved into something much more over the last decade. Today, it’s a viable and powerful staffing option that unlocks a wealth of opportunities for both employers and candidates. We fully expect interim to continue to gain momentum in a new legal market that’s quickly eclipsing the old, outdated system. It’s time to ask yourself, which side of the fence will you be on?

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