I’m a 4th year litigator in San Francisco and am currently seeking a new position. I see that there is a lot of contract work available for litigation associates at my level and higher. I even noticed that some law firms have begun their own contract attorney programs for associates seeking both law firm and in-house assignments. Is this the new normal for litigation?
This is an excellent and timely question. While it is hard to say if contract work is the new normal for litigators, there certainly are a number of temporary assignments available for litigators in the Bay Area, far more than there are full-time openings at law firms. There are a few reasons for this. First, the economic downturn of 2008-2009 hit big firm litigation the hardest. Many large firm litigation practices were all but decimated during this time—and they have never fully recovered. Mid-size firms were the winners in this scenario, as big law partners and associates lateraled to smaller firms with lower billing rates. Those who have done so have stayed put for the most part. The clients of these lawyers were also winners as their fees dropped significantly—and few are willing to go back to paying the hourly rates of their attorneys’ previous big law employers. Second, even though some law firms have begun advertising litigation positions again, the hiring process for these associates is often protracted—and it is highly, highly competitive. Firms are also being extremely cautious when it comes to actually hiring litigation attorneys. Many firms recently have advertised litigation vacancies—and then left them open for several months. Firms are understandably nervous about ramping up their litigation ranks too quickly. So many firms are testing the waters but not always willing to pull the trigger and actually hire. Third, no one can say for certain where the economic recovery is going or if litigation business will be there long term. Subsequently, litigation hiring has gone in fits and starts for the last two years, and given the uncertain economic times, there are no indications that that will change. Enter the contract litigator. Contract attorneys can provide low cost legal services to law firms and in-house practices, offering a win-win scenario for both employer and attorney who are seeking temporary solutions for complementary needs. Contract agencies have been around for years but it has been interesting to note the number of law firms who have begun hiring contact attorneys directly. Once the domain of temporary agencies exclusively, many firms have created their own contract attorney programs that are hiring talent directly. FLEX by Fenwick is an excellent example. The FLEX program offers companies and corporations cost effective and flexible legal services with set billing rates determined weekly or monthly. Attorneys who work with such programs who are seeking full-time employment have the option of gaining valuable experience as well as generating income while they search for a new position.
Generally speaking, it is, of course, best to work towards the ultimate goal of finding full-time employment, something for which a good recruiter can provide invaluable service. If you do go the contract route, it is also important to treat your contract experience with care when crafting your resume. Even though temporary litigation work is becoming more common, not all firms will appreciate seeing contract work on your resume. It may be best to exclude your contract positions from the resume so as not to distract from your other credentials. Your recruiter can then mention your temporary experience in a cover letter. Ultimately, your needs and the realities of the market will drive whether or not you pursue contract work. Regardless, working with an experienced recruiter can help you navigate the benefits and challenges associated with this evolving business model for legal services.