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
“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
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
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,”
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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 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.
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
Update Legal also offers the temp-to-permanent option, which allows
clients to preview a candidate’s work before offering a permanent
Project paralegals can be used in many different ways, including:
discovery and litigation support teams
- Working with
attorneys and clients on advanced trial preparation
- Conducting case
research and producing memoranda
technology initiatives in litigation
- Document review
- Filing projects
- Copy checking
Shepardizing, Bates stamping
- Indexing and
detailed document coding and imaging.
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
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.”
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.