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How GCs are using flexible legal talent to create more effective legal teams

08 September 2020

Sam Burrett

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Agile in house legal teams

I’ll never question a Lawyer’s work ethic. I know of the late nights and early mornings, the hours spent in Markup, and the wasteland of dried-out highlighters.

But right now, in-house Lawyers are working even harder than ever. Australia's top Legal departments are being operated from the edge of dining tables and in hastily assembled home-offices. Lawyers draft advice before the kids get up and make final amendments long after ‘COB.’

As leaders of these work-horse teams, General Counsel are facing one of the most difficult times in history. They must balance drastic fluctuations in workloads, manage the well-being of their (remote) teams, and consistently demonstrate the value of their Legal function to stressed-out executives looking to cut costs.

Enter flexible Legal talent

Agile Talent has never been more important. Most GCs need additional support but can't afford permanent headcount. To solve for the squeeze, Legal leaders are turning to alternative Legal service providers. Many of these firms have been around for years, servicing some of Australia's top Legal teams.

This article sets out how you can partner with Alternative Legal Service Providers to better manage costs, address variable workloads and shifting business priorities, enable your team to focus on key strategic priorities and build a resilient Legal function that is prepared for the future.

What is flexible Legal talent?

Flexible talent firms provide specialist short-term Lawyers to tackle a range of in-house Legal matters.

These Lawyers are generally:

  • Senior Lawyers (with both private practice and in-house experience)
  • Specialist contractors (who specialise in undertaking short-term projects and making a big impact quickly);
  • In-house experts (that speak in plain-English, can deftly navigate internal stakeholders and provide actionable advice that drives business outcomes).

Not just Lawyers on-call

Over the last decade, flexible resourcing firms have increasingly attracted top talent and provided in-house Legal teams with access to great Lawyers, on-demand, and at a fraction of the cost of traditional Law Firms.

Two key trends have contributed to the growth of the flexible resourcing market

  • On the supply side, we've seen the professionalisation of the contract workforce. Over the last 5 years, senior Legal consultants who are veterans of the secondment model have become increasingly available. At the same time, mature firms like Plexus are experts at running major projects and assembling contract teams.
  • On the demand side, we have seen an increased openness to alternative Legal service providers coupled with mounting dissatisfaction with traditional Legal service providers. GCs are looking to reduce their spend by engaging new Lawyers and are moving away from their traditional attachment to top-tier firms.

The above forces have resulted in better solutions for in-house teams and better career opportunities for contract Lawyers, creating a flywheel of better talent and better results.

When do GC's use contract Lawyers?

Short term contract Lawyers can be leveraged to tackle a range of in-house Legal matters, including when:

  • Work volume increases (for example, as a result of constrained headcount, regulatory response or launching a new business line)
  • Access to specialised expertise is needed;
  • Tight deadlines require extra bandwidth to complete tasks on-time;
  • Tight project timelines require support; and
  • Coverage of day-to-day work is needed while core team members are pulled into special projects.

In the past, flexible counsel was used only to 'plug holes.' Whether it was to cover parental leave or to fill a gap while looking for a permanent hire, flexible resourcing hasn't typically been seen as a core part of a Legal function's budget.

But as GCs look to adequately match their team's capacity to the increasing demands of the business, we will see contract Lawyers become a fixture in the Legal function budget, and Legal leaders will continue to re-allocate their external spend from the premium BigLaw players to the agile alternative providers.

Why not a traditional Law Firm?

It is second nature for most Senior Lawyers to lean heavily on their relationships with traditional firm Partners when times get tough. And sometimes, when you're betting the company on a major dispute or merger, you are willing to pay top-tier rates and overheads.

But traditional firms aren't the best fit for every job, and they often don't stack up in terms of costs when compared to a flexible provider.

Here are three reasons why Law Firms might not be the best choice for every job:

  1. Law firms have multiple clients, so at any one time, their focus is spread across various issues. This makes it difficult for Law Firms to commit a substantial amount of their time and energy to the big projects in-house teams are tasked with.
  2. They don’t always understand the demands of in-house counsel. Legal Functions deliver advice to their clients in a different way to traditional firms. They must take a one-to-many approach and address the needs of multiple stakeholders. So when Law Firms deliver black-letter work, corporate counsel are often left to re-work the Legalese and turn it into plain-English for their clients.
  3. Senior expertise is expensive at traditional Law Firms. The hourly rates of partners are simply not viable when compared with the daily rates of senior in-house experts. Due to their expensive overheads (think office, staff, coffee machines), Big Law firms simply cannot compete with leaner, agile in-house secondment firms.

The best Legal leaders use the right tool for the job. Sometimes you want all the trimmings; most of the time, you just need to get the job done.

Why not permanent staff?

It's tempting to add headcount when your budget allows for it. Who doesn't love growing their team? However, there are several reasons to be cautious of internal hires.

Firstly, you do not want to create a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Not all increases in workloads are long-term, so a permanent hire might only be useful for 6-12 months before workloads return to normal. For example, in the case of project work (eg. setting up a new business line), there will be additional work in the short term (eg. negotiating the commercial structure, drafting core agreements) that dissipates in the long term.

While hiring flexible counsel might cost a bit more than a permanent headcount in the short term, it can save your function money over the long term and help avoid difficult conversations in the future.

Secondly, there are hidden costs involved with hiring a permanent staff.

A full-time employee requires more than just their salary. You need to factor in training, management and resources needed to develop internal Lawyers. In addition, more Lawyers means more competition for promotions within the Legal function. It’s worth considering how this might impact the career development of your team and your ability to retain top talent.

Lastly, searching for new permanent staff is a costly, time-intensive process.

It often takes months to find a great hire, a process which involves multiple rounds of interviews, CVs, reference checks and reviewing onboarding procedures. Then there’s further time before the hire is truly effective. All things considered, GC’s will save significant time and energy by hiring a secondment firm to quickly plug in a pre-vetted in-house specialist.

Over to you

It is more important than ever for GCs to have a Rolodex of resourcing options to suit the needs of their team.

As workloads fluctuate, flexible Legal talent can swoop in to help ease the burden placed on the core team and augment capacity so that leaders can deploy their team’s expertise in the right areas.

Flexible support for in-house legal teams, on demand

Plexus Engage provides top-tier legal talent to support the ever-changing needs of in-house legal departments. Our highly skilled lawyers are available for immediate start.


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