Pros and Cons of Contract Work for Lawyers

Temporary Stints Can Be a Viable Option Sometimes

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Unemployed lawyers, underemployed ones, or practitioners experiencing a dry spell might consider taking on some contract work to help survive a challenging time. A contract lawyer is essentially a temporary lawyer for hire. Large law firms or corporate clients might turn to contract lawyers for more mundane work like discovery and document review. Small law firms may find that using a contract lawyer is helpful for those periods when workload is especially heavy.

Assignments can vary anywhere from one day to a number of months.

On Prestige

Lawyers pursuing work as contract lawyers might be concerned about the long-term implications of having such an item on their resumés. Starry-eyed law students might have dreamed of becoming big-time litigators or high-end divorce lawyers. Being a temporary lawyer probably wasn’t at the end of anyone’s career rainbow. Contract work is sometimes looked down on by some members of the profession. In the hierarchy of partner, counsel, associate, contract lawyers tend to be at the very bottom.

The Draw

Those pursuing contract work might like the flexibility that these gigs provide. Hours tend to be more reasonable than those lawyers at large law firms are putting in, and overtime may be paid in certain situations. Lawyers with other inclinations—writing novels, parenting, taking frequent hiatuses from the workaday world—may find temporary assignments to be particularly attractive.

No, the work is not likely to be as compelling as it would be as an associate at a major firm, but there are tradeoffs associated with every career decision. The perqs of big-time law are not likely to accompany a contract lawyer; there won’t be big offices, big parties, or a truly impressive benefits package.

Work is likely to be more of the rote sort: repetitive, not intellectually challenging, tedious.

Increasingly, firms seeking to avoid hiring more associates at high salaries are quietly relying on contract attorneys for assistance. While temporary assignments as a contract lawyer lack prestige, they also lack the headaches and long hours that accompany a BigLaw job.


Pay is likely to be hourly, paid via a third-party vendor, likely a staffing agency. That vendor is the one likely to sift through the initial round of resumes as projects are staffed and will formally be the entity for which the lawyer works. Hourly pay may be as low as $25 per hour. Pay range can vary depending on the complexity of the assignment and the expertise of the lawyer. Law firms may increase the hourly fee that they charge their clients for the contract lawyer’s work.

The Great Recession and the downward pressure on legal fees by clients has inspired increased reliance on contract attorneys. The glut of lawyers has made even getting good contract gigs an increasingly competitive endeavor, one that may not be as well compensated as it once was.


Use of contracts attorneys has not been without controversy.

Conflicts of interest, especially the imputation of a temporary attorney’s conflicts to an entire law firm, of course are issues of concern both to temporary lawyers and to the law firms that hire them. The American Bar Association has addressed the issue in Opinion 88-356 (Dec. 16, 1988) on Temporary Lawyers. Whether overtime pay must be provided to contract attorneys has been disputed, and markups of temporary attorney fees have raised some concerns, as has the issue of whether a client must be informed that a contract attorney is working on his case.

Given a shrinking legal market, use of contract attorneys can be viable for law firms of all sizes and can also provide work opportunities for a market saturated with lawyers.