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Rise of the in-house project contractor

Rise of the in-house project contractor

CONTRACT LAWYERING is increasingly becoming an option for professionals wanting to boost their career in the corporate sector, with companies increasingly hiring them on a ‘try before you buy’…

CONTRACT LAWYERING is increasingly becoming an option for professionals wanting to boost their career in the corporate sector, with companies increasingly hiring them on a ‘try before you buy’ basis.

There has always been some demand for contract lawyers, through traditional avenues such as covering for maternity leave sabbatical, unexpected sickness and to bridge the gap prior to taking on a permanent role, Mahlab senior consultant Neil Williams said. But opportunities for contract lawyers are now opening up as companies take people on for a specific period of time and then consider them for permanent roles, said Williams.

“What we’ve found is that where some companies are looking to recruit, instead of picking someone straight away and saying ‘you’re going to have a job here for the next few years’ or ‘this is a permanent role’, what they are doing is taking people on for 12 months or so and then making it permanent after that time,” he said.

This ‘try before you buy’ arrangement gives both parties the opportunity to see whether the appointment works internally. This is not about seeing whether an individual suits the company, said Williams, but rather to see whether or not the legal team, especially a smaller legal team, can sustain the extra lawyer.

This more conservative approach is a result of the economic climate. “Whilst legal teams are growing, they tend to be smaller, so this is more conservative with their recruitment,” said Williams.

The opportunities vary between companies, however, and not all are willing to take lawyers on a contract basis. “A lot of in-house teams are established, so with recruitment they have actually thought about what their needs are — they know if they can sustain another lawyer.

“Other in-house teams may just be fantastically busy at a particular time. So if for the next 12 months they may be very busy and then the work may drop off and they may not have need for another in-house lawyer [on a permanent basis], they may bring them on for a specific project,” said Williams.

Companies who are becoming more open to contract lawyers may be undertaking a corporate deal for example, or a major piece of litigation. “But then once that’s over [they question whether] there is enough work to sustain somebody going forward.”

A new development for in-house legal teams has been an increase of roles for the project contractor. While historically this type of work has been confined to major legal projects such as the implementation of GST, FSR and Privacy [Act] legislation, there has been a rise of contracts for lawyers to manage more mainstream areas.

“It is in the mainstream of legal activity, such as major pieces of litigation and mergers and acquisitions and divestment work, that we see [project lawyers] being brought on more than in the past.”

Lawyers at most levels have been open to these opportunities, said Williams. “In terms of employees there is starting to be an understanding of the professional contractor. It gives people flexibility to move from sector to sector. We are seeing a number of lawyers use it as a way to get into the in-house market and the corporate sector, which is still very competitive.

“So what they may do, especially with the longer term contracts — 6 to 12 month contracts — they are prepared to leave a full time role to go into a 12 month role because there is a chance that they may go permanent. Or, at the very least, it will provide them with solid corporate in-house experience on their resume which they may not have if they remain in private practice. It gives them more experience of finding a permanent full time role. Many would prefer a full time role but this is a good option,” said Mahlab’s Williams.

He said that if someone has been in London or Asia for three or four years, entering a company as a project contractor is a good way of coming back in and “hitting the corporate market”.

It is not just young lawyers who are welcoming these new opportunities. While partners are locked into partnership agreements and have a lot to lose if they move, a lot of senior lawyers are making the shift. There has been some activity by senior associates at major law firms who are making that transition, said Williams. “So it is right across the board.”

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