Project Attorney Utilization as a Law Practice Management Tool
by Gavin Rubin
(October 2000, Vol. 20, No. 9)

 

Project Attorney Utilization as a Law Practice Management Tool

By Gavin Rubin, Esq., Law Practice Management Section Executive Committee. Rubin is a principal with Attorney Network Services, which provides full service legal staffing to law firm and in-house legal departments. The views expressed are his own. He can be reached at (213) 430-0440.

Not long ago it was unheard of for partners and associates in law firms to work along-side project lawyers provided by a legal staffing agency. Partners at many law firms are unwilling to admit publicly that they are supervising lawyers whom they themselves did not hire, train and inculcate with the firms' traditions. However, hiring temporary lawyers is an accepted and efficient practice.

The utilization of project attorneys is a great vehicle to control costs and enhance profits, manage growth, promote flexibility, improve client service and maintain a good overall working environment.

Costs are controlled and profits enhanced by avoiding the higher costs of adding a new permanent associate, which include salary, benefits and taxes. Also, there is usually a greater margin between a client's billable hourly rate and a project attorney's pay rate. Finally the problem of turning away work because of staffing shortages is solved.

Growth can be managed by using project attorneys to address extraordinary workloads. Such utilization avoids layoffs or down sizing when workloads decrease. Utilization also provides time to assess long-term workload to properly gauge future permanent hires.

The strategic use of project attorneys promotes flexibility by aiding firms in the management of normal fluctuations in workload without increasing fixed overhead. Project attorneys are a natural fill-in for vacations, sabbaticals, family leaves or hiring gaps and provide a remedy for scheduling conflicts.

Project attorneys are useful tools to improve client service. The cost savings associated with project attorney utilization can be passed on to clients. Partners can free up their time to better focus on client needs. Project attorneys can also provide technical expertise in an area the firm may be weak. Finally, project attorney utilization helps produce a sophisticated work product in a cost-effective manner.

The use of project attorneys improves overall firm environment and career satisfaction. Utilization allows individuals to focus on aspects of practice in which they most enjoy without losing profits. Productivity is increased by not exhausting your permanent staff, which leads to an overall decrease in turnover and an increase in morale. Lastly, part-time or flexible schedules become feasible.

When a potential client invited a ten-lawyer Philadelphia firm to bid on a large environmental insurance coverage dispute, the firm's managing partner knew he would have a hard time convincing the insurer to hire his firm. The hang-up was not the firm's experience but its size. The client had cautioned that its board of directors believed a firm with fewer than 25 lawyers could not handle the case.

The firm felt there was no logic in hiring new lawyers for a single case. Instead they strategically hired skilled temporary attorneys and included their names and statuses as part of any request for large-scale litigation matters. The end result - the insurer retained the firm.

The utilization of contract professionals has become a competitive issue for small firms because now they can offer the same services to clients as larger firms without incurring the additional overhead of permanent staff. The economics of flexible firm staffing make sense for the firm and the client. The firm gains extra attorney resources at an hourly rate without worrying about the overhead costs and without fretting about passing those costs on to clients.

A local Los Angeles firm employed some experts when it was retained to sue an accountant accused of embezzlement in a civil case. The firm hired two contract attorneys with public accounting backgrounds. Their expertise helped the firm win a two million dollar verdict. The firm utilized lawyers who were tailor-made for the case and whose skills were pivotal to the successful outcome. A firm that is a litigation boutique may need assistance with arcane or different issues. The solution -- utilization of a project attorney who is well versed in that area of practice.

Project attorney utilization is a viable tool to maximize cost-effectiveness and profitability, promote flexible and strategic staffing, and enhance the overall work environment and quality of life at your firm.

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