Lawyers, as a group, have long been chastised for their perceived lack of business acumen. Perhaps rightfully so – after all, the large law firm approach has not historically been a model of commercial efficacy (at least not for clients).  And since that first caveman started scoring extra pterodactyl meat by trading woolly mammoth fur with his peers, he has dreaded running his deals by legal for fear of being scuttled by an attorney’s aversion to all but the slightest presence of risk.

Whatever the reasons for the industry’s resistance to innovation – stodgy professional rules, barefaced self-interest, perceived infallibility of counsel’s judgment – the winds of change are finally blowing wild and free.  Churned up chiefly by the global recession of the late 2000s and the resulting client outcry for greater accountability and efficiency from inside and outside counsel alike, these forces of transformation are finally tumbling the gates which have long separated the legal industry from modernization.

More, now than ever, legal departments are entrenching progressive practices into their operations. Alternative billing models, metrics and analytics, deployment of advanced technology in legal operations, and the increasing influence of non-attorney business experts in legal departments have begun to alter the face of today’s legal organization. Few developments, though, have had a more direct, immediate, and significant impact on in-house legal departments and law firms than the increasing use of sophisticated variable attorney resources to handle complex legal work flow, contain costs, and manage risk.

The contract attorney of the past was typically a young, fresh, “baby lawyer” with little training and even fewer job prospects or alternatively an elder statesperson of the bar who wasn’t quite ready to hang up the treatises. Fueled by an oversupply of attorneys and soft demand for permanent high-priced legal services, a sizable sector of career contract attorneys emerged – legal road warriors staffing short-term projects at low billable rates, largely handling lower-level legal functions that required little judgment or specialized expertise.

The interim attorney model has since evolved considerably. An emerging generation of sophisticated, exceptionally-credentialed, highly-skilled attorneys motivated by a desire for self-determination and flexibility within a sophisticated practice environment has collided with legal organizations seeking to operate more efficiently through segmentation and optimization of attorney resources. This convergence has spawned an enormous market for premium, high-end, interim attorney services – providing law firms and legal departments a ready outlet to engage highly-qualified attorneys who possess complex, specialized experience and are capable of adding immediate value on an interim basis.

A throng of alternative legal service providers – from 1000-attorney behemoths to tiny law firm-like boutiques to technology marketplaces – now offer high-end interim attorney services to corporate legal departments and full-service firms. The benefits to clients are clear:  a novel channel by which to procure specialized legal talent quickly and effectively; embedding highly-skilled, specialized interim attorneys with the permanent legal team and leveraging the knowledge and expertise of these attorneys; extracting significant cost savings relative to outside counsel and permanent headcount; quickly ramping up and down attorney resources as workflow dictates; optimizing permanent attorney headcount; and re-positioning risk and responsibility for managing non-permanent attorney resources.

While engaging a high-end, sophisticated engagement attorney appears to be a straightforward process, it’s important for clients – both law firm and in-house – to consider several factors to ensure optimal outcomes and pleasant experiences.

The competence of the service provider is critical to the overall success of the engagement.  At a very minimum, an alternative legal service provider should be experienced in recruiting and retaining highly-qualified attorneys and, by extension, matching specific client pain points against these attorneys’ expertise and qualifications.

The service provider should be expert at managing attorney engagements and optimizing attorney performance. Mechanisms must exist to calibrate performance and avoid sub-optimal outcomes.  The provider should maintain more than just a transient relationship with its attorneys by enlisting them as long-term, competitively compensated team members, providing them with a robust suite of benefits and professional development resources, and offering a compelling platform through which they can consistently and continuously embark on professionally gratifying legal engagements.

Some of the larger players in the space tout raw attorney numbers as a selling point. But before engaging an attorney via one of these providers, clients should be certain the organization is actually recruiting and, critically, retaining the most qualified attorneys. Some alternative legal providers are barely more than glorified sales and marketing operations whose business personnel consist primarily of non-attorney salespeople who have very little experience with attorney relationship management, attorney recruiting, or legal client requirements. The overall quality and fit of the attorney engaged through this type of provider can end up being simply a matter of fate, in which case the price premium over a traditional contract attorney cannot be justified.

Small collectives of attorneys branded as alternative model legal service providers may present some of the same constraints as a small law practice. Though they possess focused experience in a few narrow areas, they often lack the depth and breadth of substantive experience and the ability to efficiently attract legal talent to serve large, complex, organizations. Additionally, the cost structure of these providers may not be adequately differentiated relative to a traditional law firm, particularly given their limited engagement and legal process management expertise.

A number of technology-driven providers have also emerged in this space. These entities essentially offer a clearinghouse or marketplace of attorney options without presenting any meaningful value-add beyond the technology platform. The providers generally sign up attorneys, house their details in a repository, and place the onus on clients to match those attorneys against their own needs.  While this solution may be useful to individual or upstart legal service consumers, more elaborate organizations may find themselves bogged down by the process of screening, vetting, and managing attorneys procured through these providers. While technology is an indispensable component of any alternative legal service provider, it does not, on its own, constitute a complete solution for operations that require dynamic, robust, and comprehensive guidance when engaging and managing attorneys on complicated legal matters.

Law firms and in-house legal departments are no longer tolerated as black holes of organizational capital.  Nor are they considered the antithesis of inventiveness. By leveraging a range of contemporary resources and approaches – particularly new attorney resourcing models –  the half-trillion-dollar global legal industry is boldly embracing change. The ultimate success and sustainability of these efforts will largely turn on legal organizations aligning with service providers who understand the peculiar demands of legal clients and possess the experience and inventiveness to design and deploy effective solutions.