As law firms and corporate legal departments begin looking forward to a new year, staffing considerations are likely to be top of mind. Even if business is improving, legal employers are understandably wary about adding full-time staff too hastily and later having to scale back. But understaffing can be just as risky if they find themselves unable to meet client needs and take advantage of new opportunities. That’s why many legal organizations are increasingly mulling a broad range of staffing scenarios.
Before making decisions about hiring full- or part-time staff or project legal professionals, consider the following questions:
- Are you focused on filling needs, rather than positions? Take a big picture view of your needs. Rather than automatically following staffing assumptions that have worked well in the past, consider creative alternatives to the way you use resources. Don’t automatically fill an open position with someone who has the same skills and experience as the person who previously held the post. While this may at first seem logical, it can be a mistake because there’s a good chance that external and internal conditions have changed since the position was last filled, and different skills might now be required.
Evaluate your real current and near-future needs before you decide how to staff a position. This can significantly affect when and how you should seek a replacement — or whether you should consider an alternative arrangement.
- Have you considered a range of staffing options?Recognize that staffing is more than just recruiting full-time employees. You may be able to fill some gaps by shifting the work responsibilities of current employees so that long-awaited promotions are granted or team members receive opportunities to develop new expertise. You can then fill in by adding full-time employees, interim professionals or a mix of the two.
To address immediate staffing shortages and expand the pool of specialized skills, many law firms and corporate legal departments are bringing in project lawyers, paralegals and legal support staff for initiatives ranging from document reviews — including the task of e-discovery, which is becoming more and more complex — to matters requiring senior-level assistance. This approach recognizes that not every expert required for a particular case or project component needs to be a full-time employee. Because contingent legal professionals with targeted skills can be engaged on an “as-needed” basis, this is a cost-effective way to manage complex and time-consuming projects.
- Have you considered a temporary-to-hire arrangement?As employers in the legal field become more exacting in the skills and abilities they require, talent can be increasingly difficult and time-consuming to locate. More than half (53 percent) of lawyers polled in a recent Robert Half Legal survey said it is somewhat or very challenging to locate skilled professionals today.
To identify candidates for possible hire, many law firms and legal departments are bringing in interim professionals, an arrangement that provides what amounts to a trial period for prospective employees. If they decide to convert a temporary employee to full time, they have the advantage of already knowing the person’s strengths firsthand, including how good a fit they are with the organization’s culture.
- Do you have access to qualified temporary professionals?If you’re faced with unanticipated projects or the sudden loss of key employees, you’ll want to have a go-to plan in place to bridge the staffing gap. The best way to do this is to establish a relationship with a reputable, specialized staffing firm. An experienced firm can save you time and reduce the costs involved in finding highly skilled temporary professionals, helping to prevent productivity losses. A specialized firm will also partner with you to select the talent that will best fit your particular needs and the optimal staffing mix for your business.
The bottom line: Considering a range of staffing options and being open to supplementing internal staff with skilled interim professionals allows organizations to stay nimble, keep pace with expanding workloads, and maintain better control over human resources budgets. As legal organizations continually rebalance their workforces to address changing conditions, many are discovering that a year-round mix of core employees and interim workers is the best way to respond to an often-unpredictable business environment.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.