Then & Now: How the Legal Industry Has Changed Since 1991

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A lot can change in 30 years. The world went from carbon paper copies (what a mess!) to electronic contracts, reems and boxes of paper documents to mobile eDiscovery apps (the world of litigation in the palm of your hand), lots of support staff to more self-sufficient attorneys. For three decades, Assigned Counsel has watched, adapted, and contributed to changes across legal staffing agencies and the industry at large.

With our 30th anniversary fast approaching, our President and cofounder, Robert Murphy, took a look back at our history, our lessons, and the journey of the industry over time. Here’s what he had to say:

What was the perception of a contract/temporary lawyer in the 1990s? How has that perception changed?

In the 1990s, there was a negative perception of temporary attorneys. A common comment we heard was that good lawyers wouldn’t work on a temporary basis. The idea was new to the industry, so there were some questions about the expertise and skill sets that temporary attorneys could provide. When General Counsel saw we could provide a reliable person who could do the job and save them money, the perception began to change.

Now, the idea of temporary attorneys is legitimized, but there is still a demand to validate their experience. For General Counsel, it’s really a question of whether the attorney has the practice area knowledge and experience to do what is needed right now. There are over a million lawyers in the U.S., but the trick is finding seasoned attorneys who you can trust to help you maximize your budget and deliver quality results.

Has there been a change in the demographic composition of temporary lawyers over time?

Most of the temp lawyers in the ‘90s were men who were between positions looking for something to do until they found their next permanent role. In our early days, one of our primary sources of reliable lawyers were people who worked for the Resolution Trust Corporation. As the government-owned asset management company finished closing or otherwise resolving thrifts in the wake of the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, we found exceptional attorneys.

Now, part time legal work can be seen as a career path. We see more women and men who have family responsibilities and want to find a work-life balance that was not achievable in-house or in a law firm. Temporary placements provide an opportunity for experienced lawyers to work on a less than full-time basis, while making a decent amount of money and controlling their work-life balance.

How has the legal staffing industry changed over the years?

There is much more stratification between the ‘90s and today. The move from a figurative single layer pound cake to a cake smorgasbord, brimming with different layers and flavors, in such short a period of time is nothing short of stunning. Assigned Counsel initially did in-house and law firm placements as well as providing high-volume temporary legal staff for document review and major litigation preparation. We were one of a handful of legal staffing agencies across the nation serving a wide range of practice area knowledge, functions, and experience level.

In 2021, there are dozens of staffing companies providing lawyers with their size ranging from global organizations to smaller regional firms. Now, Assigned Counsel focuses primarily on placing experienced, practice area specific attorneys. Large document reviews are better suited for other providers.

In fact, there has been an explosion of providers of legal services, ranging from eDiscovery support to law department management consultants, that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Running a law department involves more service components and potentially more money now. The challenge is determining the most cost-effective approach to optimize your positive outcomes, selecting services based on compelling needs rather than perfect-world wants.

How has the legal industry changed in 30 years?

Over 30 years, there has been a growing expectation for General Counsel to bring more legal work in-house as a cost-cutting measure.

The Dot Com bubble, the U.S. housing bubble, or even COVID-19 created scenarios where law firms had excess capacity and were offering exclusive or almost exclusive attorneys at a deep discount. This value proposition diminishes as more profitable mainstream work returns.

An unfortunate reality that remains the same is that law departments are perceived as cost centers, not profit centers. Law departments provide many levels of value and need to be their own proponents. To that end, temporary attorneys are like a three-for-one sale. Three temporary attorney hours compare to one provided by an outside law firm. Truly leveraging that would make a CFO swoon!

The legal industry is changing in more ways than anyone could anticipate. Check out our eBook “How Corporate Law Departments Can Thrive in a Remote World” to learn about how other law departments are thriving in this new era.

 

 

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