Lawyers who can turn up, work for short bursts and save the day are being called upon as in-house legal budgets remain tight. Are contract lawyers the in-house super heroes of our times? Kate Gibbs reports
When the in-house jobs market gets tough, the tough get contract work. So it has been, and will continue to be, as corporations crack down on legal spend and the size of their legal departments.
Lawyers at the mid- to top-levels are being hired for in-house counsel roles as companies continue to rein in budgets in the fallout of the global financial crisis.
Mahlab Recruitment manager of corporate in New South Wales, John Egerton, told The New Lawyer today that he is placing a string of candidates for specific project related role and for dedicated contract positions. It's in-house legal teams' answer to being unable to hire people in full-time and permanent roles, he said.
"In-house legal teams didn't have the budget or the approval to get a permanent hire on board. So the way they go around that is to get someone on board for say a six to nine month contract," said Egerton.
The general hope is that the in-house team will then have a case to keep that lawyer on permanently, he said.
"Once you're on board and performing, it's easier for the company to make a business case and say 'look we've had this person on board for nine months, can we either extend that contract or make them a permanent hire?' Last year, because of the GFC, they just weren't getting the approval to get a person on board on a permanent basis. So we saw a lot of contract roles placed in the last year," Egerton said.
Egerton said it's now quite common for those roles to be extended, or become permanent.
While organisations have always placed lawyers on a contract basis, particularly for maternity roles and projects, Egerton said this has increased in recent months. It's increasing when there is an overflow of work, and they can't justify getting someone on for a permanent role, he said.
"They assess the business case, and reassess it at the end of the contract. And if the work is not there, both parties can walk away."
In-house teams and their organisations are given the chance to try before they buy with staff, hiring people for particular projects and keeping them on only if needed, and if the lawyer has proven themselves to be of value.
But as it's good for organisations and the in-house teams as they're given flexibility over hiring, lawyers themselves are also keen to take on these roles.
Mahlab has a number of lawyers it only places in contract roles in-house, giving those lawyers the chance to gain a wide variety of work, and gain experience they may not have had previously. As jobs are increasingly scarce, as well, it's a chance for lawyers to work in a talent-glut market. These positions are particularly popular at the senior level, Egerton said.
Can lawyers who take on this type of work bet on a permanent job at the end? Egerton said it very much depends on where the business is heading.
"Sometimes the contract work runs it course and then the company goes back to its in-house team. It's amazing how many of the contract lawyers we place get a full time role. They prove their worth to the organisations."
He said he thinks this will continue while there is still uncertainty in terms of the market.
Lawyers in full-time roles are not advised to take contract work on, despite how popular working in-house is at the moment.
"You wouldn't take a contract role if you were already in a full time role and it was a short term contract with no guarantee of becoming permanent," he said. "Thats too big of a risk for a lawyer to take. But a contract role is a great way for a lawyer to get their feet back in the market."
But for lawyers who have just returned from overseas and are looking to get back into the Australian market, or for those returning to the workforce from maternity leave, it can be a good option. It's also suitable for people who have been working in private practice who are keen to gain some experience in-house.
Generally, said Egerton, it's very competitive because a of a lot private practice lawyers are looking to go in-house.