Five Ways to Use Flexible Talent to Unlock Optimal Legal Department Performance

April 6, 2023

Written by Megan Grossman and Andrew Cary, this post was also published in Legal Operators Magazine.

As the U.S. economic climate remains uncertain, many American businesses are feeling pressure to cut spending; in just the past few months, numerous notable companies have announced layoffs while many others have implemented hiring freezes. For a legal team, uncertainty often means more demands yet fewer resources. This amplifies the need for legal department leaders to adopt innovative staffing solutions that enhance budget efficiency and optimize team performance.

More traditional solutions for addressing increasing demands on the legal team, such as outsourcing in-house overflow work to outside law firm counsel or adding new permanent headcount, are frequently not an option when companies are facing market uncertainty. Paying law firm rates for in-house work is usually a last resort even when times are good, and few companies prefer to add new fixed costs when they are trying to become leaner and more flexible. The use of law firm secondments can sometimes make sense for relieving pressure on a legal team without adding long-term, fixed-cost expenses, but using law firm associate or counsel secondees is often suboptimal for the legal team, the law firm, and the secondee for numerous reasons, including cost.

Flexible legal talent – such as contract attorneys, paralegals, and legal operations professionals – offers a cost-effective solution that not only promotes team efficiency but also enhances overall well-being and performance. This approach is gaining recognition as a preferred method, particularly in today’s uncertain market conditions where demand for nimble solutions has only increased.

5 Ways Flexible Talent Can Optimize Legal Department Performance

A December 2022 survey of legal operations professionals by the Blickstein Group reported that just over 45 percent of legal departments surveyed have increased their usage of alternative legal staffing providers (ALSPs) over the past year and 30 percent expect further increases over the next year. Notably, no survey participants expect ALSP usage to decrease.

With an array of service options, from self-service platforms to full-service talent partners, legal departments now have more access to different types of flexible legal talent than ever before. The key to filling in the gaps and maximizing team performance is to consider important fit factors unique to the situation at hand.

1. Provide Surge Capacity
Multiple scenarios can lead to a sudden uptick in team workload, for example, a complex transaction, sudden increase in litigation, or the departure of a key team member. Bringing on an experienced in-house counsel to provide additional support through periods of high demand can help the team avoid dropping balls and push through crunch times.

2. Prevent Employee Burnout
An Attorney Workload and Hours Survey conducted by Bloomberg Law in the latter half of 2021 reported that surveyed attorneys felt burnout in their jobs 52 percent of the time. Today, in an uncertain climate and when employers can least afford underperforming teams, employees are at greater risk of burnout. Engaging attorneys who have the sophisticated experience to seamlessly integrate with the team and shoulder some of the workload can provide much-needed relief to overburdened team members, combatting burnout, reducing attrition, and preserving team performance.

3. Augment the Team During a Hiring Freeze
Many legal departments already use high-end contract attorneys during hiring freezes when they do not have approval to fill a vacancy (or a much-needed new position) with a permanent hire. Since many legal departments utilize their outside counsel spend to engage contract counsel, this is often an immediate solution which achieves the company’s objectives of avoiding both new fixed costs and having to paying law firm rates to get in-house counsel work done.

4. Bring in Subject Matter Expertise
There are many Big Law and in-house pedigreed legal professionals with highly specialized experience in even the most niche practice areas. Bringing specialized expertise in-house on a contract basis can enable the legal department to gain that expertise on a more cost-effective basis, assess the team’s need for that position on the team, or fill in a gap that may only require part-time focus each week.

5. Minimize Disruption Through Organizational Restructure or Transition
Legal departments must adapt to changing circumstances, and in periods of transition may require additional support, whether that be to cover work tasks until a merger or business acquisition is completed or to temporarily manage a project while team roles and responsibilities are restructured.

As highlighted in the 2017 report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, chronic negative stressors that are unpredictable or beyond an individual’s control can have a detrimental impact on attorneys’ health and cognitive capabilities, including concentration, problem-solving, and establishing strong relationships with coworkers and clients. When uncertainty increases demand on legal departments, the potential for burnout is high.

There are many ways to use flexible talent to increase productivity, cost efficiency, and team performance. When applied effectively, flexible legal talent can be a distinguishing characteristic between high- and low-performing teams.

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