In the 16 years since he founded Lawyers on Demand, Simon Harper has seen several waves of change across the legal industry as general counsel have grown more comfortable working with alternative legal service providers. The past six months have represented the latest significant shift.
On the heels of the pandemic, Harper said, “We’re seeing demand driven by something different. Legal teams are thinking more strategically about how they source what they’re doing, less about pure growth in head count and more about how to efficiently get their legal work done.”
Coupled with the vanishing of secondments, a rise in the quality of attorneys available through services such as Lawyers on Demand and a need for increased adaptability inside legal departments, the result is more work shifting from law firms to alternative providers, according to general counsel and industry observers.
For William Bowes, general counsel of Condé Nast, the rise in flexible lawyering has been driven in recent years by the growing need for flexibility elsewhere within a legal department. In-house attorneys are being asked to quickly learn and apply new skills, respond to rapidly changing regulations and adapt to flexible working conditions.
“Because we need to operate in a quicker way—a different way—the demands on us are evolving rapidly and the traditional service you’d get from a law firm just doesn’t cut it anymore,” Bowes said. “The traditional service providers are thinking in traditional ways, and they’re always inevitably behind the way that people in-house are being asked to work.”
That makes it all the more valuable to have access to people thinking in new ways about legal service delivery, automation and cost models, he said. When he began working with Lawyers on Demand about a decade ago, Bowes wanted an ALSP to allow him to escape from the old typecast role of an in-house lawyer, tasked with handling high-volume, low-value work, so he could turn more attention to strategic efforts. But now, as general counsel have largely moved past that pigeonhole, they’re seeing a broader range of opportunities with alternative providers.
The cultural shift taking place within in-house teams has led to “a more open-minded approach about what is the right team to deliver what the legal department is set up to do,” Lewis Bretts, Lawyers on Demand’s group managing director for the United States, said. Part of that is a result of macroeconomic pressures, but part is also owed to a broader shift in how the in-house department operates, which increasingly emphasizes a heavy hand in keeping an organization moving in the right direction.
In the past, flexible lawyers were primarily used to fill a gap when someone went on leave, but now, “those big users know exactly what they want,” said Matthew Kay, the head of Vario, Pinsent Masons’ offering for freelance lawyers and managed legal services. “They’re looking ahead into the next year and know the projects that are going to come online and the resources they need.”
With that in mind, legal departments can substitute flexible lawyers for growth in their own in-house teams. In some legal departments, where head count pressure is more significant than cost pressure, that makes these services all the more attractive.
For some, the discussion around flexible lawyering has moved on from simply seeking additional resources to seeking help managing them, Kay said. Now that they’ve grown comfortable with a large number of outside attorneys bolstering their teams, general counsel want their providers to help with onboarding, assimilation and anything else that can maximize efficiency.
“They’ve moved away from worrying about whether you can provide the resource to how to make it work even better, even slicker, even faster,” Kay said.
So Much for Secondments
Among the trends pushing legal departments toward alternative providers, several sources identified the apparent end of secondments as an important factor.
“There’s no such thing as a free secondment anymore,” Lisa Owens, managing director at Major, Lindsey & Africa and a member of its Europe, Middle East and Africa in-house counsel practice, said.
With so much work to be done at law firms, associates are too precious a resource to send out to a client. Instead, firms are developing their own flexible lawyering arms, such as Vario, to charge clients for work that might have been done by a secondee in the past. General counsel said secondments have all but disappeared and those that are available come at a rate that doesn’t make sense anymore, making the offerings feel more performative than genuine.
Bowes said that the dearth of secondments has driven him toward alternative models, as well as to get better with legal operations and think more carefully about every pound he spends.
“An alternative legal service provider that can contribute to my team, instead of a law firm that wants to take work away from my team, is going to be increasingly valuable as I try to position my department in a strategic way,” Bowes said.
The Senior End of the Spectrum
As they shift their attention toward ALSPs, general counsel are also being met by a talent pool expanded by the pandemic’s impact on attorney’s lifestyle desires and the solidification of these providers as a presence across the legal industry. There are more senior-level lawyers to be found than ever before. And although until recently they would have been handling what Kay called “midlevel work” for in-house teams, more and more large international clients are now using GC-level lawyers on an as-needed basis and giving them GC-level work, he said.
“The caliber of people who are doing contracting work or part-time work has changed massively,” Sarah Binder, general counsel at transportation company Lime, said, noting that she brought on a senior lawyer through an ALSP and later converted the lawyer to full time because it worked out so well.
That upgrade in available talent is the biggest practical difference for in-house teams seeking supplemental help, Binder said. Previously, a general counsel might have needed to closely manage a short-term hire, but now they’re effective enough to be handed over to the supply chain team, for example, and put right to work.
“The ability to be included and be seen as part of the legal team from day one is quite a fundamental shift,” Binder said. “That’s because you trust them. They have the expertise.”
The Search for Specialty
As general counsel turn to Lawyers on Demand, Vario and others like them, they are increasingly searching for specialized talent. For example, 2022 was the year of the product lawyer, Harper said, especially at technology companies that wanted someone with an understanding of tech products, privacy and intellectual property all rolled into one. More recently, he has seen a rise of a mix of lawyers who can support growth in legal operations, including junior lawyers, paralegals and contract managers who can comprise what he calls a “managed team” working to tackle slices of work for a legal department.
As an example, Harper said, think of the repetitive procurement contract or licensing agreement. An in-house team might have in the past had a handful of people managing those projects day in and day out, but now the general counsel can find something more enjoyable and strategic for them to do instead. Turning to an ALSP can allow the legal department to get all the same work done while freeing up their staff to make more meaningful contributions.
“It’s often about, ‘Are my lawyers and my legal team being fulfilled by the kind of work they’re doing?’” Bretts said. “If you’ve got a highly trained lawyer who’s been doing this for years, it’s not fulfilling for them to do that kind of work.”
In the coming months, Bretts said he expects to have more and more conversations about automation and how it can help focus attorneys’ time on the most meaningful matters. From a people perspective, Harper said he anticipates in-house departments seeking more openness and visibility about the flexible lawyers they’re working with, as they begin treating it as a resourcing hub built into their day-to-day operations rather than a tool for addressing individual tactical decisions.
Moving forward, Kay said he expects legal departments to continue the shift toward seeking blended solutions for their most pressing problems, using a combination of flexible lawyers, private law firms, legal professionals and technology. He has seen a growing number of clients asking for holistic solutions.
“Clients don’t just want a body,” Kay said. “They want an answer to their problem. Their question is, ‘How can you best help us solve our problem?’”
In terms of areas attracting special attention right now, Kay said climate and sustainability weren’t part of Vario’s offerings as recently as a few years ago, but in-house teams are increasingly asking for help there, particularly at companies focused on financial services and funds. In general, tech and energy companies tend to join financial services as the most significant consumers of flexible lawyering.
For Condé Nast, which operates in the space of fashion and social media, an ALSP is best suited to address issues around talent deals, for example, or to navigate new copyright directives emerging around the world that raise questions for content creators. On projects such as those, Bowes wants to hire someone for a few months who can apply direct and specific experience to help his company implement new strategies.
“You can’t go to a law firm for something that’s evolving that fast,” Bowes said. “Nor do you want to hire someone for the next five years for that role, because it’s just a particular need for a particular time. The ALSPs who have that network can address issues in a way that neither a client nor a recruiter can.”