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March 12, 2014

Research update: Contract attorneys and outsourcing, Part 1 of 2

This two part post previews results from my book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability, which will be published this summer.  All quotes are from managing partners, chairs, and other senior decision makers at AmLaw 200 firms.  Each participated in 30-minute in-depth interviews and spoke freely based on the understanding that they could review their quotes before publication, but they would not be quoted by name.

One tactic that many law firms are experimenting with to lower cost is simply to pay less to get the work done. This can be accomplished by directly hiring lower-cost contract attorneys or by outsourcing this function to a growing number of legal process outsourcing firms such as Axiom, Pangea3, and Novus Law.

There is considerable evidence that this trend is growing. In their 2014 Client Advisory, Hildebrandt Consulting and Citi Private Bank reported that in the 10 years from 2002 to 2012, the percentage of “temporary/other” lawyers in large firms grew from 2.4% to 6.1% (p. 7).  The report also noted that “In the Law Firm Leaders Survey, 82% of respondents answered that they are using temporary or contract lawyers. Additionally, 70% responded that they are using permanent, lower cost, non-partner track lawyers” (p. 6)

In our sample, 97% of the firms who discussed this issue had used contract attorneys who were paid as little as $30 per hour, and 59% had experimented with outsourcing, which can be even cheaper. About one-third of the firms are planning to increase the work done this way (31% for contract attorneys and 36% for outsourcing).

Some successes

These experiments have taken a variety of forms, some more successful than others. Here are a few of the examples mentioned by our participants:

Our staff lawyer and e-discovery business has been very successful for us, and very, very profitable.

We’ve had a discovery center alternative staffing model for a number of years. It used to be just for litigation. Now we probably have over 300 clients that run through there. It’s used for everything from government investigations to contract reviews, real estate projects, and M&A due diligence. One of these days, we’ll probably open a second center somewhere else, because we’re at capacity.

We have a contract counsel manager in our firm. We have both direct hire and indirect hire contract counsel. For indirect hire contract counsel, we have relationships with various staffing firms, for large due diligence document review and e-discovery type projects. But we also have our direct hire contract counsel program, where we hire principally alums: people who have dropped out of the regular work force to raise a family or for health or other reasons, but want to do some work. They’re fine lawyers. We developed what we call our “law firm in a box.” We can drop an office into their home. It has a voice over internet phone with a black box computer attached to the back of it. All they have to do is plug the keyboard, terminal, mouse, and printer into the phone, plug the phone into a high speed internet connection outlet in their home, hit a button, and they are a firm office. They can work from home with full functionality.

We have implemented what we call staff attorneys. We are crawling before we walk. We have probably hired eight staff attorneys over the last two years. We really want it to succeed, and so we’ve been careful. Ironically, we’re probably more careful in hiring those people than we are with our full-time associates. But I think we’ve had a good success, and relatively good acceptance among the partners of the concept, such that we will continue to roll it out over time.

We were recently involved in a large project where there were probably 40 to 50 contract attorneys. They were paid $30 an hour. But it is a challenge to align these lawyers’ expectations with reality. Not everybody is going to be on a partnership track, even if they’ve done extraordinarily well in law school, and even if they do very, very well in the law firm. Our goal will be to assure people that they have a future, set expectations, define their career path, and deliver on it. All of these goals will need to make sense inside each firm’s model. Figuring out the correct model for your firm will help in delivering value to clients, but it will be one of the toughest challenges the industry is going to face going forward.

We have non-partnership track associates who have a flexible schedule. They are employees, but they bill at a lower cost. Economically, this is incredibly sensible and works well. But one of the challenges of having non-partnership positions of people who are paid at a lower salary and having them housed in the same place as people who are making high salaries, is that you have some retention issues and morale problems.

You have to manage it properly. As with all tools, it’s not right for every job. But we do use them in areas where the work is more repetitive, and in the areas where I’m sure everybody uses contract lawyers – for outsourcing, for discovery review, electronic discovery, management, all that sort of thing.

Next week, in Part 2 of this post, we will quote some senior managers who have been less enthusiastic about this approach.

 

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