The Pros & Cons of Contract Positions

Uncertainty and law may seem to repel one another, but some lawyers are built for a bit of uncertainty in their life. Some even seek it out. Though it is rarely perceived as a willful act, many lawyers have taken a leap of faith and left permanent employment to take on a contract in a bet for something better. Contracts are becoming a more popular option with employers as budgets and headcount continue to be squeezed. This newly transient job market is therefore forcing lawyers to become believers, the faith of the day being – it’ll be alright even though there is an end in sight. While for some having an end in sight is relieving, it might take some of us a bit more to get there. Here are some things you should know about contract positions that might turn you into a believer.

Pinch Hitters Don’t Come Cheap

The adage “you get what you pay for” is as true when it comes to people as it is with appliances. And with contract positions, employers are coming to realize that it makes good business sense to dish out for top talent. Contract positions often relate to significant, time-sensitive projects for a legal department. Even where the contract is replacing a salaried employee, employers are realizing that it pays to get the person who can “hit the ground running”. While some employers simply seek out warm bodies, those that have had prior experience hiring and working with a contract employee understand that word-processing skills, a half-hearted effort and a pulse will do more damage than the savings are worth.  What this all means is that taking on a contract doesn’t have to constitute a financial hit. If employers want the best, they typically find ways to offset the inherent insecurity of the position by paying above market. The absence of benefits can also be offset by an inflated salary (and if you don’t need to go to the dentist, well, let’s just say that your dental health can translate into a small windfall). In these competitive and highly insecure times, some lawyers have also negotiated a “stay” or “retention” bonus which is typically paid out at the end of a contract as an incentive to forgo other opportunities and complete the contract. Certainly, it is not all good news and with a record number of associates out of work, much of the leverage necessary to demand above market pay is lost. But if you are good at what you do and you are dealing with a savvy employer, don’t sell yourself short.

Becoming a Renewable Resource 

It is not urban myth that is relayed in the three-times-removed stories of your colleague. Contracts are renewed and become permanent all the time. What started as a brief affair can turn into a stable, long-lasting relationship.  This can happen in many ways. Sometimes lawyers go through the tumult of insecurity every few months where a contract is renewed several times before the employer decides to put a ring on it. Other times there is a long break after the contract is completed, but the employer comes back to a former contractor for a new position instead of fishing in a sea of unknowns. Either way, it is undisputed that once you are in, you will always have an advantage over others when new positions arise. At the very least, you can rely to some degree on the fact that you are slightly more attractive because you don’t incur the costs associated with training someone new. Some positions are notoriously hard to obtain due to a low turn-over within a company or organization. Because of this, many lawyers have taken a contract to break into an otherwise impenetrable organization.  The advice here is obvious – be a superstar while you are there and make sure you are well-liked. While sometimes a contract is just a contract, if you make yourself indispensible and get people on your side, you will have a good shot at being a go-to for future opportunities. Finally, don’t be afraid to approach your employer and have a frank discussion about the prospect for permanent employment. There is nothing wrong with expressing your interest to stay on or come back as long as you remain respectful of the person you are bench-warming for.

Testing the Waters 

It is the classic Bachelor blunder – with all the focus on getting someone to like you, many forget the importance of figuring out whether they like the employer back. And in a buyers market where the competition is especially fierce, many hopefuls commit to permanent roles without doing any due diligence. Contracts, however, offer a great opportunity to test out an employer minus the stigma of being dubbed a flake or a flight-risk once it is time to move on. This is especially relevant for a first move from a firm to an in-house position. This can be the biggest transition that a lawyer will make – one that more and more are realizing may not be for them. Several associates have treated in-house contracts as unofficial secondments even though there is no guarantee for them to come back to their firm. But with a solid reputation behind them, they have taken a contract banking that their firm would take them back if they decided that they wanted to return to private practice. And the source of relief for them is exactly what is causing so many others anxiety – it’s not forever. Some have even approached their firms to get prior permission to treat a contract as a secondment. And firms are responding with interest. With little work to go around and budgets getting tighter, contracts can offer firms a way to avoid letting their top associates go. At the same time, it gives the firm some relief from their own budgeting pressure, provides associates with great experience while making them more marketable for the firm and allows the firm to forge relationships with potential clients. In the end, contracts are really the equivalent of the perfect vacation fling. With the pressure of commitment absent, all of the barriers to a mutually beneficial relationship are removed. Everybody’s happy, nobody gets hurt – and most importantly, you have avoided the awkward break-up.

Shameless Opportunism

Just as you are testing out the employer, contracts are also an opportunity for you to use the employer for all they’re worth (despite the analogies, this is not to be taken as advice for your love life). The career contract lawyer sees every contract as a resume building opportunity. Whereas permanent employees tend to build on the same skill-set year after year, contracts provide an opportunity to diversify as a lawyer (they are also a great way to keep interested if you bore easily). This is especially important if you are practicing in an area that is especially innovative. Getting a few months in with an industry leader can develop a specialized skill-set that will put you ahead of your competition. Furthermore, the simple act of moving in and out of roles which require learning different types of agreements, working with different business groups and learning different industries is an indispensable tool that will turn you into a “hit the ground running” person. Though piling on too many contracts can detract from any benefits of diversifying, a few stints with reputable organizations are great currency. Just make sure you always get references. A choppy resume begins to look better when each stint is backed by stellar letters. In the end, you have more opportunities to create a record of consistency in your work and therefore credibility. And in the name of using the employer, contracts provide the accessibility necessary to make new contacts. Having your temporary status out in the open can be a liberating experience. Like an open relationship – you can let it be known that you are available every step of they way. There is no taboo or secrecy involved and people you meet and work with will similarly feel free to approach you if they know they are not stepping on any toes. Again, this is not to be taken as an endorsement for swinging.

For the Non-Believers

Although this has mostly been a paean to the contract position, there are things that must be said that might turn some of you into heretics. While contracts can be viewed in a positive or at least indifferent light, there is a tipping point where too many consecutive contracts will begin to make prospective employers nervous – the assumption being you are either not interested in or couldn’t secure a permanent role. That being said, this opinion typically only develops at the point that someone can justifiably be dubbed a perennial contract lawyer. There are also very tangible benefits that don’t attach to contract positions that may be missed. Typically, there is no vacation entitlement, no benefits and no parental leave allowances.  It is not ideal, particularly where you have dependents, but it is something. And in this economy, “something” is worth believing in.

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