The traditional law firm model of partners and associates is changing. The recession has caused firms to closer examine how they provide services to their clients, and how to maintain excellent service with responsible spending. One area of change is the recent use of project-based attorneys who are hired on a contract basis, as opposed to hiring full-time associates or partners.

Many firms have historically used temporary attorneys for routine tasks like discovery and document review for acquisitions. However, firms are now looking to also use contract attorneys who are specialized and have a niche skill to fill short-term needs. On the other side, the appeal for attorneys to go into contracted work is there as well, and growing. Contracted work makes a lot of sense for someone looking to use and hone their skills, build their resume and work for some of the top firms in the industry.

A recent survey of executives from a variety of businesses around the world (Global Firms in 2020: The Next Decade of Change for Organizations and Workersby the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Society for Human Resource Management) found that 67 percent say they will hire additional staff “cautiously” during the next decade, shifting their focus to contingent workers rather than full-time employees. The consensus was companies “must maintain leaner organizations, hiring on contract or outsourcing work rather than hiring full-time staff.”

Another recent study by Altman Weil found 39 percent of managing partners at 218 U.S. law firms used contract lawyers in 2009, 53 percent intended to do so in 2010, and 52 percent expect contract lawyers to become a permanent part of their staffing plans.

Part of the reason for the changing paradigm is industry-wide layoffs have left firms short staffed. Corporations are watching budgets more closely and challenging firms to change their traditional method of hourly billing. Moreover, temporary staffing makes sense for firms looking to cover for staff on leave, or to meet a specific need for a period of time.

Firms are also recognizing that hiring contract attorneys is a great way to determine if individuals are a good fit for the long term. Moreover, the supply of strong candidates for temporary positions is becoming more robust. Many women have left full-time positions to raise children (but could accommodate part-time work), talented private practice associates have lost jobs due to widespread layoffs, and a number of in-house attorneys have become disillusioned with life in Corporate America.

Thus, a ready and available talent pool is there, as is the demand for contracted lawyers. Accordingly, temporary assignment is an appealing option for both parties, and why increased numbers of firms are now contracting out work.