Transitioning From Contract Attorney to Associate

Transitioning From Contract Attorney to Associate

I enjoy reading Alex Rich‘s informative, comical, and sometimes depressing posts about life as a contract attorney, particularly in the world of document review. While I have no desire to do full-time doc review, I can see how the “bill and chill” nature of the job could appeal to some people. But in my world, there is more to being a “contract attorney” than being a coder.

Contract work is basically working for an attorney for a limited purpose. It ends once a task is accomplished or after a fixed period of time. Common contract-work projects are court appearances, document review, legal research, drafting or editing motions, and even trial. If you know the right people and have a certain skill set, contract work is not a bad way to make a lawyerly living. But for most new solo practitioners, contract work serves as a supplemental source of income (along with other interesting and strange side gigs) while they try to get their practice up and running.

Today, I want to talk about a rare contract attorney position: a temp-to-hire arrangement where your employer/client hires you on a contract basis and may offer an associate position in the future. I will talk about how to spot such a position and make the most of it. Finally, I will discuss whether it is better to accept the associate position or remain a contract attorney.

I see a number of job ads where the hiring attorney seeks to hire on a contract basis with the possibility of an associate position in the future. The contract period typically lasts a few months and you generally work full-time hours. The problem is that in most cases, the promotion promise is a pipe dream used by some to give false hope. It is hard to know for sure unless you have known the attorney and her practice for a while. I advise using common sense. If the firm gives you additional tasks and responsibilities as time goes on, and the key people like you, then chances are good that you may have a future with this firm.

Once you are hired on as a contract attorney, there are three questions you should ask: (1) Are you gaining experience in the area you want? (2) Do you respect the people who you are working for? (3) Are you getting paid well?

If you answered yes to all three, congratulations. You have achieved the holy trinity of contract work and you should do whatever it takes to make your relationship a long-term one. Go out of your way to give your best work, be friendly and helpful to everyone, and find a way to bring value to the firm without being irritating to your superiors.

But in most cases, you will answer yes to only one or two of those questions. Obviously, regardless of your personal feelings, you should always be professional and do your best work. If you are planning to move to another firm after your contract period ends, you want to leave on a high note.

If you are gaining relevant experience and like the work you do, learn by doing as much work as you can before your contract period ends. If you feel comfortable doing the work on your own without supervision, you can use your experience to market yourself to other firms or supplement your own practice.

If you are working for well-known and respected attorneys, then your main goal is to gain a favorable letter of recommendation or reference from someone in that firm. If you are there too long and don’t like the work or are not paid well, at some point you may feel like you are being exploited and your work quality may deteriorate. Of course, there is nothing wrong with asking for additional work or a raise when your contract is up for renewal.

If you are getting paid well but dislike your work and/or the people you are working for, there are two options. You can put up with the crap for the money. Or ask your employer if you can do something different. This is not likely to happen because as a contract attorney, you are being hired to fill in a temporary need. Firms generally are not interested in helping you develop your career.

Finally, let’s say you are a perfect fit for the firm and you are offered an associate position. In some cases, it may be better to just stay on as a long-term contract attorney.

There are the traditional benefits of being a firm associate. You are formally a part of the firm as an employee. This usually means a steady salary and better likelihood of job security. You may also get the firm’s health care and retirement benefits. As you may be groomed for a potential partnership, the firm will invest more in your professional development and visibility in the legal community. Being an associate looks better on your résumé in case you want to lateral to another firm. And if things ultimately don’t work out, you may qualify for unemployment.

There are some disadvantages to being a firm associate. You may have to give up your current clients or transfer them to firm. The firm will likely demand more of you than you originally anticipated and you may have to meet billable hours. And of course, job security is not guaranteed.

Remaining on as a contract attorney has its advantages. You will be treated as an independent contractor, which could mean paying lower income taxes because you can write off a lot of your expenses connected to your contract work. You can keep doing your own work independently and double dip, especially if the firm and your existing clients pay you well. Finally, you may later be hired on as a partner if you do good work and bring in business.

But as a contract attorney, you are the low woman on the firm’s totem pole, ranking below the janitor. You will not be eligible for the firm’s benefits and will be the first to go if the firm needs to cut back. Finally, working a full-time contract job can be exhausting. You will be working full-time during the day and spending nights and weekends servicing your clients. This can get problematic if you need to meet with your clients in person.
Source: Above The Law

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