The economy during the last several years has been difficult. Attorneys, like many other workers, have been faced with very tough choices. One of the dilemmas faced by attorneys has been whether to accept “contract” work while they continue to search for full time associate positions. “Contract” work can take a variety of forms. Sometimes attorneys are hired to work on one long term project. Other times the projects are much shorter in duration; and are more like “temporary” assignments. When attorneys are contemplating accepting a contract position, they usually have many questions. Are some types of contract positions better than others? What are the benefits of accepting a contract position? What are the risks?
Long Term Contract Positions Are Superior to Short Term Positions.
Future employers will of course evaluate a contract attorney’s experience; and long term contract positions are viewed more favorably. The theory is that a candidate’s experience is “deeper” if he has been employed on a long term project rather than on a series of short term projects. Even if the work – e.g. document review – on a long term project is comparable (or perhaps even identical) to the work performed on an assortment of short term projects, the perception is that long term projects are superior because such projects provide the candidate with more substantive experience. If you are fortunate enough to be able to choose among several contract positions, do not necessarily be swayed by the “bigger” name, as a short term position with a Top 20 firm may be much less beneficial for your career than a long term position with a less well known firm.
What Are the Benefits of Contract Positions?
There are two obvious benefits to contract positions: income and experience. The former does not need any additional embellishment regarding its value! However, the latter is very important and relates to the point above re: long term versus short term projects. When you have a choice among contract positions, you should try to discern precisely what you will be doing and whether, assuming you perform well on your initial tasks, there is the opportunity to be upgraded to better and more sophisticated work. The quality and depth of your experience are what future permanent employers will value; and therefore, you should evaluate all potential contract positions with these twin considerations in mind.
Another benefit is the possibility that your contract position might evolve into a permanent position. Thus, when evaluating contract positions, you should also try to learn about whether the firms at issue ever promote their contract attorneys to regular permanent associate status. A firm that promotes its contract attorneys is infinitely preferable to a firm that does not engage in such promotions. Not only will your overall work experience at the former type of firm probably be better (as contract attorneys are viewed at the outset as viable professionals), but also because your long term prospects are obviously far better!
Another benefit to contract positions is the opportunity to network in your chosen area of practice. The biggest name and/or highest bidder may not be a leader in your practice area. It is probably far better to select a firm that focuses heavily on your area of practice; and will afford you the opportunity to make connections and build relationships within said area. It will be an immense boon to your career to have great references from “experts” in your chosen area of practice.
What Are the Risks of Contract Positions?
The biggest risk to accepting a contract position is that some firms, despite the benefits discussed herein, have a bias against contract attorneys. Some firms take the stance that contract attorneys are inferior, were unable to secure permanent employment, and are generally less desirable. I would be doing readers a disservice if I did not mention this prejudice. When I have worked with contract attorneys, I have found that explaining their contract status is a hurdle. However, it is a hurdle that is far easier to overcome if I can discuss a candidate’s valid reasons for accepting his contract position. It is not very compelling to say that the candidate thought the big name was impressive (especially if I am dealing with a smaller firm that is considering the candidate for permanent employment); nor is it especially enticing to say that the candidate opted for the highest paying contract position. However, if I can tell a potential permanent employer that my candidate accepted a long term contract position (where his experience would be substantive) with a leader in his chosen area of practice, then my candidate’s choice is far more palatable to the potential permanent employer. In sum, you can mitigate the risk if you choose your contract position thoughtfully and with your career as your guide.