It is an inescapable reality these days that many firms are laying off lawyers at all levels, from junior associates fresh out of law school to partners with 25 years of experience.Many of these newly unemployed lawyers – even those with stellar credentials – may be finding it more difficult than expected to find a new job as quickly as they had hoped.With bills to pay, unemployed lawyers are increasingly turning to contract or “temp” agencies for short-term projects that bring in some income, albeit not BigLaw income.Several candidates have asked me recently if there are any downsides to working as a contract lawyer while job hunting. There are – but there are also many potentially upsides.
First, the downsides.
The Stigma: The truth is that some firms simply will not consider hiring a lawyer if her resume reflects one or more stints as a contract lawyer.Whether this is fair or not is beside the point. Some firms and lawyers have this bias. The good news is that – given the sheer number of lawyers out of work and the increase in those turning to contract lawyering as a stop-gap – this view is likely to become less prevalent, at least with respect to the current crop of downsized lawyers.Also, with the rise (and success) of new, more respectable “hybrid” contract lawyer firms (such as Axiom), the traditional stigma that some firms have associated with contract lawyers is likely to diminish as firms evolve.
The Distraction: Some believe that working as a contract attorney will prevent you from dedicating yourself to what should be your primary focus – finding a new job. The thought is that time “wasted” shuffling papers around in a dark basement for low pay would be better spent making calls and sending out resumes for “real jobs.”While it is true that a contract position may require your full attention for a period of weeks or months, it shouldn’t stop you from continuing your job search. No matter how resourceful you are, you can’t really spend your entire day, every day, searching for a job. Most of your job search can be conducted after hours and on weekends. And contract agencies (and employers) typically are understanding if you need to skip a morning of work for an interview for a permanent job.
The Boredom: With rare exceptions, contract work is boring. And tedious. And mind numbing. And possibly humiliating. My advice: get over yourself. You are still getting paid more than most skilled laborers on an hourly basis. Further, keep reminding yourself that every hour, every day, every week, gives you some additional financial stability so that you can support yourself in finding a new position.
Now, some of the positives.
The Income: I already mentioned the fact that contract work can help you pay some of your bills, but you may be pleasantly surprised at just how much money you take home.Sure your firm was billing you out at $350/hour, but how much of that did you actually keep?Sadly, probably not a lot more than you’ll receive from your temp job.
The Brain Activity: Being out of work is not fun. Even if you have a financial cushion, day after day of Oprah re-runs, Mario Kart and Halo marathons, sleeping past noon and trying to find stuff to do will rot your brain. Although contract jobs may not always be the most fascinating legal work, at least they keep your mind in the game.
The Resume: While some firms disdain contract work on your resume, all firms will question large, unexplained gaps. At a minimum, taking a contract position will ensure that you do not have significant gaps of unemployment. It also shows firms that you are ready, willing and eager to work.
The Leads: Working a contract job means that you are around lawyers all day. Take advantage and be social, friendly and interactive. Let everyone know that you are looking for a permanent position. Do good work. When one of these lawyers hears about a new job – at his firm or somewhere else – he just might tell you about it!
The Experience: Contract lawyers typically are hired to fill a desperate and immediate need. Prior subject matter experience usually is not required. Take advantage of the opportunity to beef up your knowledge base and improve your resume by learning as much as you can about the subject matter of the transaction or litigation you are assigned to. It may come in handy for your next position.
While contract work may carry a historical stigma with some firms, there are many potential advantages – in addition to garnering some immediate cash flow – that make it an attractive option for those waiting out the current fiscal crisis. Be sure to seek out a reputable contract agency and use the experience to your benefit. It may even lead you directly to your next (permanent) legal position!