Sign of the Times: Temp-to-Perm Attorneys

By Bill Leonard Nov 10, 2008
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The economic downturn has led to tighter budgets and smaller staffs, changing the way companies recruit employees. The recent recruiting trend among businesses, according to experts, has been to hire more temporary workers and then transition them into permanent jobs or, as many call it, “temp-to-perm” recruiting.

Surprisingly, the temp-to-perm trend has become very popular among law firms and businesses looking to hire in-house counsels. While highly educated and talented attorneys don’t quite fit most people’s image of the typical temp worker, managers of a growing number of law firms believe the temp-to-perm model is the best way to hire their professional staff, according to Susan Etheridge, president of Professional Placement Services Inc. in Tampa, Fla.

“I’ve seen this trend developing for the past 10 years, but with the current economic climate, I believe it’s a trend that’s here to stay,” Etheridge said.

With the economic downturn, Etheridge said, law firms are learning that they can save money and test potential employees. Etheridge says it’s possibly the most cost-effective hiring processes that law firms can have.

“Staff and hiring budgets are on hold right now, so more law firms and businesses looking to hire in-house counsels have moved toward this model out of necessity, but they’re finding that it works very well,” she said.

Most U.S. law firms are operated as limited partnerships, and the compensation structures of the firms plus bar association requirements make the nuances of temp-to-perm hiring of lawyers a bit more complicated, Etheridge said. She recommends that law firms and businesses hoping to hire attorneys this way work with recruiting and staffing firms that have experience in placing professional-level staff.

Attorney Appeal

She says that a growing number of talented and skilled attorneys are expressing interest in trying temporary or contract jobs that can eventually turn into full-time and permanent assignments.

Employers shouldn’t worry that the contract or temporary attorneys don’t pull their own weight. Etheridge referenced a recent case in the Tampa area in which a contract attorney won a settlement of $1.8 million for the law firm that hired him on a temporary basis.

“It was the largest settlement for a contract attorney ever in Florida,” said Etheridge. “And you can imagine the law firm was pretty happy with the placement of that attorney.”

The process isn’t for everyone, warns Frank Casey, a managing partner of Vigilant Consulting Inc. in Tampa.

“Many attorneys that are willing to take on temporary assignments are the ones looking for more flexibility in their careers,” said Casey. “Or they’re looking to re-enter the workforce after taking some time off.”

Many of the attorneys fitting Casey’s description tend to be women and people approaching retirement age. He says that while interest in the temp-to-perm situation is increasing, he doesn’t recommend it for every attorney with whom he consults.

“I’m also a financial adviser, and if you’re expecting to be the primary bread winner for your family, then temp-to-perm might not be the best situation because it is a temporary job and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be hired on permanently.”

Still, the temp-to-perm recruiting and hiring model is one that works particularly well for small and medium-sized law firms.

“It’s one way that the smaller-sized firms have found that they can compete in the recruiting game with the larger law firms,” Casey said.

He recommends that businesses looking to recruit professional level staff find a placement agency or recruitment consulting group that best fits their organizational needs.

“It’s best to find a placement firm that specializes in the type of professional-level employees that your company needs,” Casey said. “Due diligence in finding the right fit can save your company a lot of money in the long run.”

Human resource staff at small and medium-sized firms are beginning to understand the value of using the placement agencies and the temp-to-perm recruiting model, according to Casey.

“In most cases, the smaller-sized firms just don’t have the resources, and in a lot of cases the person who manages the HR functions at a smaller firm is doing it part time or HR is just one part of their duties,” he said. “Using a temp-to-perm placement can be a win/win situation for HR at these smaller firms. They end up getting some excellent candidates from the placement firms and can make certain that they are hiring the best attorneys possible at a very effective cost.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.

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