Issue Archive

E-mail Lists

News Briefs



Upcoming Events

Job Bank



Becoming a

Media Kit

Press Center  New

About Us

Contact Us


"I Want To Be Surveyed!"


logo4.gif (10052 bytes)

bar3.gif (1641 bytes)

A Temporary Solution
Paralegals and law firms find temporary employment a workable solution to a troubled job market.
By Rachel Ng
May/June 2003 Issue

The economy has been on a downslide ever since the dot-com bust, the tragic events of Sept. 11 and the war with Iraq. In January, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the national unemployment rate had risen to 5.7 percent. Many legal professionals, including paralegals, are being laid off. New paralegal graduates are having a hard time landing their first job. As a result, some firms and paralegals are now seeking temporary employment as a short-term solution, and the competition within the temp market is heating up.

“Due to the current economic situation, we are seeing professionals with highly marketable backgrounds looking for jobs. It is an employer’s market, so many paralegals are viewing the opportunity to work in contract or temporary positions as a way to display their skills or to gain proficiencies in new specialties,” said Kathleen Call, executive director of The Affiliates, a company that specializes in placing legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments throughout the United States and Canada.

“In this economy, law firms do not want to add to their head count and therefore it is the flexible way of handling staffing,” said Kristen A. Cook, legal placement manager at Update Legal. “The paralegals and attorneys can get in to do a specific job and when that is complete, the firms no longer need to keep them on their payroll.” These firms also save money because not only are the costs per hour substantially less, but placement firms handle the candidates’ benefits as well.

Whether you are an out-of-work paralegal looking for a temporary job, or a supervisor seeking additional help to assist in a huge case, it’s useful to understand the unique culture of temp jobs. Everyone has had a first day on the job; imagine a career made up of first days.

The law might not change from office to office but the procedures do, and even seasoned temps can get butterflies. It takes the cooperation of everyone to make a temporary experience a positive one — cooperation from the staffing agency, the temporary paralegal and the law office itself.

The Role of the Agency
There are many legal-specific temp agencies peppered around the United States (see “Legal Staffing Agencies,” on Page 70). Often, one of the first steps these temp agencies take is to run conflict checks for the client to check the temp’s past associations with opposing counsel, and to make sure there are no conflicts.

For example, Todays Legal Staffing in Philadelphia requires at least two references and performs a background check prior to a person going to work. “It behooves us to present the best possible people to ensure future business and uphold our standards and reputation, [so] the reference check and background check are mandatory prior to entering them into our computer system,” said Andrea Dutton, a direct hire specialist with Todays Legal Staffing.

In addition to administrative, clerical and legal testing, agencies work to match the right temp with the right office to fulfill the law firm’s wish list. Agencies try to get to know their clients as well as their temps, from the attorneys’ work style to the office environment to the dress code.

The Affiliates, for example, works closely with its clients to assess their individual needs and provide skilled and experienced candidates on a project and full-time basis for a wide range of positions, including attorneys, paralegals, litigation support specialists, legal managers, administrators and legal support personnel, Call said.

There are times when a firm needs specific skills. “They will call and say ‘We need a litigation paralegal with five years experience and trial work-up experience, someone who can do jury instructions and help with motions in limine,’” said Katy Little, legal recruiter for Access Staffing in San Francisco. “We’re not going to send somebody with estate planning and probate experience. But if it’s just send a case clerk over there and they’ll be getting instructions from a higher level paralegal, we don’t have to have somebody with [that much] experience.”

In addition, if a law firm is only trying to fill a space for a few days or a week, an agency might not scramble to find the perfect candidate, Little said. However, for a longer assignment, there needs to be a better match.

A temporary paralegal who has spent a great deal of time working for large firms with support staff might not be used to working in a small firm. And a candidate with specialized training can function even in a more generalized setting if the office is large enough to offer support. As for the temp’s point-of-view in the selection process, Call said the candidate always has the opportunity to provide agency account managers with an overview of the project he or she would like to obtain and the ability to decline a project.

Just like in permanent employment, temp paralegals have the right to say yes or no to a particular assignment based on their likes and dislikes, area of law, length of assignment, pay scale and so forth, Dutton added.

A Paralegal Perspective
Don Hughes, a paralegal with Day Berry & Howard in Hartford, Conn., has been a paralegal for four years. He previously worked as a paralegal for two and a half years at a real estate firm in its foreclosure department. However, when Hughes moved from North Carolina to Connecticut, he said he had a tough time getting any interviews, so he decided to try his luck with staffing agencies. On his first temp assignment, Hughes was hired as a page checker on a document production.

“[I] knew absolutely nothing about the case or even what a document production was. The page checking portion of the project was the most mind-numbing experience of my life,” he said.

However, Hughes kept on going. And within a couple of weeks, he was asked to help one of the two paralegals who were managing the entire production with some minor tasks.

“When I started, there were about five to 10 attorneys involved with the document review and within two short months we were up to about 40. I was in a perfect position to be promoted to manage the electronic portion of the document production, which did not begin until most of the paper had been reviewed,” he said. Hughes was responsible for more than 800 CDs of electronic information that were produced to the Federal Trade Commission in an antitrust matter. “When it was over I realized I just completed the greatest professional experience of my young career,” he said.

Hughes worked on a few other projects for other firms and companies, which included document reviews and organizing a customized legal software program. After two years, his persistence paid off and his most recent temporary document review project turned into a permanent position.

Hughes recommends being proactive at a temp job. “If you show that you are willing to do whatever needs to be done to get the project completed, you can advance quickly,” he said. “The more overtime you are willing to work, the more projects your recruiter will consider you for.”

Hughes also stressed the importance of developing a good relationship with the recruiter. “One small successful project with a certain recruiter can reap huge rewards in terms of how hard that recruiter works to get you your next assignment,” he said.

Hughes added the name of the company or firm you temp for, combined with the type of experience you gain, will mean much more than how long you worked there.

“I was initially afraid that it wouldn’t look good that I was working for six months here and one month there; boy was I wrong,” he said. “I stopped concentrating on how long the project was and started asking questions like: What can this project do for my résumé? What type of reputation does this firm have? What type of experience might I gain during this project? I felt that if I was patient, the permanent offer would come on its own, and that is exactly what happened.”

Another invaluable benefit, Hughes said, were the professional relationships and networking opportunities he developed. Sometimes, as in Hughes’ case, your job leads will come directly from the company or firm you are working for as a temp.

Working with Temps
Part of the stress of temping is you might not know what you are getting into and the office doesn’t know who they are getting. Communication is the key to a successful assignment for both the temporary paralegal and the law firm. Before the temp heads into the law firm, the law firm itself is often instructed by the agency.

“If [law firms have] never used a temp before, we tell them what our screening procedures are. For example, we will go through the interview process, the software testing and scores of individual applicants, our legal evaluation and reference checks,” said Lauren Harkins, manager of Legal Northwest in Portland.

Part of getting the temp up to speed is making sure, in the recruitment stage, they are familiar with the job’s specifics. Many large firms keep a book at each work station that covers procedures. This can be invaluable.

Little, who used to be a litigation paralegal and office manager of a law firm, asked secretaries to leave a map for the temp, in addition to having notebooks at every desk that contained pink sheets, captions of cases, proofs of service, and information on how to contact opposing counsel and co-defendants — everything someone just starting in the office would need to know, right at his or her fingertips.

Ideally, the office manager should give the temp a tour, Little said. “Something like, ‘This is where the files are kept, this is the copy room, this is the copier, have you worked with this mode? This is the postage machine. If you have any questions, give me a call’ and make sure you leave your extension with the temp. That’s a perfect world. Legal administrators don’t have a lot of time and even if they’re paying premium dollars for these temps to come in, they spend about 10 minutes getting them up to speed,” she said.

Harkins said she advises temps not to make assumptions and to ask questions. “Each law firm does things differently, each attorney does things differently,” she said.

Hughes agreed, adding many times as a temp paralegal you might be left to figure things out on your own. “I have worked in many places where there was just too much work to be done to have someone take the time to explain the right way to do something,” he said. “What can separate you from the rest of the pack is your ability to know exactly when you should stop and seek help in defining exactly what the instructions are to be followed.”

Hughes advised, when in doubt, approach your supervisors and explain to them you feel like you might be doing something wrong and need clarification. “Another trick I have learned is to pay attention to everyone and everything. Sometimes you can find someone who is not your immediate supervisor who may be willing to lend you a helping hand,” Hughes said. “I have made it a habit to try to listen more than talk. You can learn far more about any given situation by just sitting back, listening and observing body language of the people around you.”

Current Temp Trends
Right now, the “hot” temp job markets include insurance defense and technology-related specialties, according to Call. “As always, paralegals with general litigation experience are in demand. And those legal assistants with a medical or nursing background are increasingly sought after,” Call said.

Intellectual property is also desirable as are most areas of litigation, especially when the case is in the midst of trial, Dutton added.

Another trend in the temp market is to bring in project paralegals as part of a “temp-to-hire” approach. “This practice allows firms to evaluate the performance and talents of a potential employee firsthand before a permanent hiring offer is made,” Call said. “This practice also allows management to accurately assess whether the workload justifies the hiring of additional full-time legal assistants, or whether the continued use of project paralegals is the more cost-effective solution.”

Update Legal also offers the temp-to-permanent option, which allows clients to preview a candidate’s work before offering a permanent position.

Project paralegals can be used in many different ways, including:

  • Supervising discovery and litigation support teams
  • Working with attorneys and clients on advanced trial preparation
  • Conducting case research and producing memoranda
  • Overseeing technology initiatives in litigation
  • Document review and management
  • Filing projects
  • Copy checking
  • Redacting, Shepardizing, Bates stamping
  • Indexing and coding databases
  • Performing detailed document coding and imaging.

In today’s market, education is a major factor in landing temp jobs. Employers are seeking paralegals who have been certified through accredited programs in universities, colleges and paralegal associations. The level of legal experience needed depends on the type of firm and job the temp is assigned to. However, firms are always looking for legal assistants with an understanding of litigation software, according to Call.

The reasons firms and companies hire temps are as varied as the offices themselves. Some firms use temporary paralegals to free up permanent employees or because they are financially restrained from hiring full-time employees. Companies might reassign permanent employees to assist on special projects and supplement with a temp. Other firms might hire temps to replace vacationing employees, those on special projects, or just as an addition to an overwhelmed department.

Even though Hughes warned that working as a temp isn’t for everyone, he also said it has the potential to pay huge dividends.

“There is a gold mine of opportunity in the temp industry and it should be taken full advantage of while you wait for a permanent offer,” Hughes said. “Don’t be afraid that you might pass up a good permanent opportunity. It has been my experience that firms that are hiring are not in a rush. If you land an assignment at the biggest firm in the state for one month, a prospective employer will wait for you.”


What Companies Should Do to Prepare for Temp Employees

  • The temporary placement agency should be matching candidates to assignments, but if there is any doubt, ask for a copy of the temp’s resume, and conduct an interview. Getting the right person for the right assignment makes transition that much easier.
  • Tell the agency or temp how things are done, how the phones are answered, whether or not the temp is supposed to back up phones. Explain how cases are filed, how research is undertaken and how time sheets are made out.
  • Note what the assignment is — a special project, replacing an absent employee, a temp to permanent position. Give the employee an idea of the duration of the assignment, and an idea of whether he or she is working with a specific attorney, floating to fill gaps, or working with a group on a large project.
  • Leave typed instructions at the workstation with information that is common knowledge to permanent employees, but hard won for temps. For example, how to turn the alarm on and off, turn the answering service on and off, where files go, what is expected to come in while the permanent employee is away, where to put it and how to record it or what to do with it once it arrives.
  • Leave a notebook of examples at the workstation, including case captions, contact numbers for plaintiffs, defendants and opposing counsel, examples of case files, routing slips, memos and examples of other documents particular to the law firm.
  • An organized law firm ready for the temp eases the transition process for everyone involved. Be prepared for the temp’s arrival. Plan in advance what the temp will be working on, and where his or her workstation will be.
  • The contact person for the temp needs to be at the office and available when the temp arrives. It’s awkward for everyone — and wastes time and money — to have a temp working on an unrelated project, tying up other employees, and not working on what he or she came in to do, or just plain not working productively.
  • Give the temp a tour of the office, where the copy room is, the filing room, the break room and restroom. Explain what is expected of him or her during the assignment and outline the operating procedures for the firm.
  • Answer questions willingly and patiently.

Legal Staffing Agencies


The Affiliates
(800) 870-8367

Ajilon Legal (formerly
Co-Counsel Inc.)
(866) 462-5456

Esquire Solutions
(866) 306-6611

Kelly Law Registry
(800) 248-4529

LawCorps Legal Staffing
(888) 582-6777

StaffWise Legal Inc.

Special Counsel
(800) 737-3436

Todays Legal Staffing
(877) 545-7823

Update Legal
(888) 354-8200

Regional Markets

Houston & Los Angeles
Clausman Legal Staffing Inc.
Houston: (888) 743-9200
Los Angeles: (949) 515-2140

Los Angeles
Legal Option Group
(213) 553-9399

New York
Legal Support Personnel
(212) 695-3999

Career Choices
(775) 826-2555

Major Legal Services
(216) 579-9782

Legal Northwest
(503) 242-2514

Legal Network
(412) 201-7470

Washington, D.C.
Pat Taylor & Associates
(202) 466-5622


Jennifer Rachel Baumer contributed to this article.

bar3.gif (1641 bytes)

| Home |
| Issue Archive | Listserv | News Briefs | Upcoming Events | Links |
| Becoming a Paralegal | Media Kit | About Us | Contact Us | Subscribe |

Updated 08/25/06
© Legal Assistant Today Magazine
[email protected]
(800) 394-2626