Demystifying the Titles: Contract Attorneys and their Varied Designations in Law Firms

1. What is the primary role of a Contract Attorney in a law firm?

A Contract Attorney is typically hired on a temporary basis to work on specific cases or projects, and they might not have long-term ties to the firm, unlike associates or partners. 

2. Why might the ‘Staff Attorney’ designation be misleading for some people?

The title “staff” often denotes support roles in many organizations. This could lead to misconceptions that these lawyers are involved in administrative or non-legal tasks, rather than providing
core legal services. 

3. How does an ‘Of Counsel’ attorney differ from associates or partners in a law firm?

An ‘Of Counsel’ attorney is neither an associate nor a partner. They are typically seasoned professionals who might be retired partners, experts in niche areas, or academicians, offering a wealth of knowledge to the firm without being a regular employee.   
Navigating the legal profession landscape can be overwhelming due to the various titles given to attorneys in law firms. While many recognize traditional titles like ‘Associate,’ ‘Partner,’ or ‘Counsel,’ newer designations can confuse clients and fellow attorneys. This article aims to clarify these titles, especially those referring to non-permanent or contract-based attorney roles.


1. Contract Attorney

A contract attorney is a professional generally hired for a temporary duration to manage specific cases or projects. Unlike associates or partners who have sustained and ongoing relationships with a firm, contract attorneys might only be involved for the term of a particular assignment.

Why it’s confusing:
The term “contract” in its literal sense relates to agreements. This might mislead some clients or peers into thinking these attorneys specialize exclusively in contract law, overlooking their potential expertise in other areas.



2. Staff Attorney

While staff attorneys are often permanent employees within a firm, they may not necessarily be on the pathway to becoming partners. They have a crucial role in handling specific legal tasks and offering support to more senior attorneys.

Why it’s confusing:
The title “staff” often denotes support roles in many organizations, leading to potential misconceptions that these lawyers might be involved in administrative or non-legal tasks rather than core legal services.



3. Of Counsel

The title ‘Of Counsel’ represents a unique role in law firms. These attorneys are neither associates nor partners. They are typically seasoned professionals, possibly retired partners, experts in niche areas, or even academicians who bring a wealth of knowledge to a firm without being a regular employee.

Why it’s confusing:
The title doesn’t offer direct insights into the nature of the role. The phrase ‘Of Counsel’ lacks clarity, making it hard for outsiders to gauge the depth of experience and expertise these professionals bring.



4. Per Diem Attorney

The term “Per Diem,” derived from Latin, translates to “per day.” These attorneys are often hired daily to manage specific court sessions or handle tasks when the primary attorney is unavailable.

Why it’s confusing:
A daily hiring model might lead clients to assume the role’s transient and possibly less qualified nature. The short-term nature of their hiring could be mistakenly equated with a lack of expertise or commitment to cases.

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5. Project Attorney

These attorneys are specifically brought on board for particular, often time-bound projects. This could range from document reviews to assisting with large-scale litigations.

Why it’s confusing:
The term “project” is commonly associated with temporary or short-term endeavors. Clients might be uncertain about the depth of expertise or the exact role these attorneys play, potentially underestimating their importance in larger legal processes.


6. Freelance Attorney

Mirroring freelancers in fields like writing or design, freelance attorneys operate on a flexible schedule, often juggling multiple clients or projects, and may not be tied to a particular firm.

Why it’s confusing:
While commonplace in many industries, the freelance model is relatively new in the legal field. This could lead to skepticism or misconceptions regarding their level of professionalism, dedication, or the consistency of their services.


7. Attorney (without qualifiers)

Some firms prefer the straightforward title “Attorney” over specific designations like “Associate.” This title could denote a variety of roles, from non-traditional to contract-based positions.

Why it’s confusing:
A title without specific qualifiers leaves room for ambiguity. It might be challenging for clients to discern the attorney’s exact position, seniority, or how integrated they are within the firm’s hierarchy.



8. Legal Consultant

Often, experts from other sectors or lawyers trained abroad offer specific expertise to a firm without becoming full-fledged members. These professionals are termed legal consultants.

Why it’s confusing:
The title “consultant” suggests a more advisory role. Clients might question whether these individuals possess the same competence, training, or licensing level as traditional attorneys.



9. Temporary Attorney

As the name suggests, these attorneys occupy roles for short durations. They often fill in for absentees or handle additional workloads during peak times.

Why it’s confusing:
There might be an unintended bias, associating the term “temporary” with inexperience. Clients could overlook the value and expertise these attorneys bring, merely based on the transient nature of their positions.



10. Discovery Attorney

This title is reserved for attorneys specializing in the discovery phase of litigation, a process involving meticulous document review and related tasks.

Why it’s confusing:
Given its niche focus, those unfamiliar with litigation’s detailed phases might not fully understand these attorneys’ pivotal role. The title doesn’t explicitly capture the broad skill set and critical analytical capabilities required for such roles.




The ever-evolving legal profession, dynamic client needs, and an increasing trend toward flexible work models have birthed various titles. While these reflect the industry’s adaptability and diversification, they can also be a source of confusion. It becomes imperative for law firms to elucidate these roles effectively. Clients and fellow attorneys, on the other hand, should take the initiative to understand the intricacies of these designations. After all, clarity in understanding roles can lead to better collaboration and outcomes. Knowledge indeed dispels misconceptions and confusion.