The rise in demand for interim workers within legal teams

Ongoing economic turbulence has left companies suspended in long-term cost containment mode. Hiring freezes, redundancies and team restructures are a constant battle for many organisations, triggered by the bleak global economy.

However, legal teams remain integral to day-to-day operations and, while not immune to personnel cuts, need to remain suitably staffed to remain effective.

This has often led to internal debates regarding legal hiring managers justifiably asking for budget to hire additional legal personnel to combat natural attrition and peaks in work, often denied by those who control the purse strings.

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The compromise? Interim legal support.

Facing the hiring challenge

The word caution comes to mind when describing the vast majority of hiring strategies for legal teams this year.

Economic uncertainty has resulted in a hesitance for legal teams to hire and expand, even if a busy workflow commands it, with permanent hiring freezes installed which results in increased workloads that strain smaller legal teams.

Some legal teams have also experienced natural attrition, but take the business decision (at times, to the dismay of legal hiring managers) not to replace outgoing talent.

For some of the larger organisations, particularly the world’s leading banks, there has been increased scrutiny on the structure of legal teams with redundancies and restructures a common theme in 2023, the outcome of which will trickle into 2024.

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However, as with every year, there are scenarios that merit hiring additional support: maternity cover, department skill gaps and projects.

Law firms are also less willing to part with secondees, particularly for no cost at all. Instead, companies are using interim legal support as a cost-effective and viable solution.

The cost-saving benefits

Hiring on an interim basis allows for greater cost-containment.

The individuals you bring on are flexible resources that you can call upon for specifics and peaks in work.

Companies have also been using the intuitive, albeit not entirely new concept, of ‘try before you buy' hiring, by assessing their longer-term permanent hiring needs by trialling open headcount with an interim solution.

One may ask how hiring interim legal personnel transcends a company-wide hiring freeze, but legal teams can be creative with the pools of cash available to them and can navigate permanent hiring freezes by using different budgets.

Data from contractors that MLA have placed this year reveals that the length of contracts are becoming shorter (three to six months, as opposed to nine to 12 months), suggesting legal teams are using their budgets smartly and only hiring additional support when it is absolutely crucial and not depleting their different pools of cash.

A dual approach

For companies that are still active in hiring a permanent member to their legal team, can hiring interim lawyers still be an effective tool? The answer is yes. Given the economic instability, some candidates have been less willing to move.

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Companies also want to ensure that they are hiring the right calibre candidate.

Rather than making a snap-shot judgement by hiring the best candidate available at the time a permanent recruitment process has been launched, companies can instead hire an interim to allow them more time to assess candidate suitability.

Often, the interim transpires to be a perfect fit and converts to permanent employment.

As we move towards 2024, hiring freezes are beginning to be lifted and budgets for hiring additional legal headcount are beginning to be firmed up. This does not necessarily mean there will be an influx of permanent legal mandates as we head into next year’s Q1.

What will remain is the flexibility that hiring interim legal personnel brings.

Christian Worthy is managing director of Major, Lindsey & Africa's Interim Legal Talent team