On paper, Danielle Lackey looks like a strong candidate for Big Law partnership — degrees from Brown University and Stanford Law School and excellent recommendations about her legal work.
But after four years at Latham & Watkins, Lackey decided the lifestyle didn’t suit her.
“I wanted to control my own destiny,” she said.
In the past, attorneys like Lackey may have sought a position in-house or switched careers. Today, thanks to technology, a growing acceptance of remote work, and an entrepreneurial boom, there are new ways to maintain a corporate-based practice outside of the traditional law firm path.
In 2013, having quit Latham she founded Cadence Counsel, essentially a temping company that matches lawyers with law firms and companies looking for part-time resources. Lackey is betting that lawyers in her generation want to trade prestige and rich compensation for flexibility — and that temping will attract talented lawyers who aren’t interested in the long hours required of the typical partnership route.
Law firms have relied upon temporary contract attorneys for low-level tasks such as document review for decades. But now, a spate of new temping firms are marketing themselves as organizations that consistently handle higher level work, such as legal research, depositions and drafting deal documents, and they’re attracting top talent.
Debbie Epstein Henry, a law firm consultant who founded the secondment firm, Bliss Lawyers, said the shift is the lawyers who are working at these organizations.
“Temporary resources at law firms is nothing new,” said Henry. “What’s new is the attorneys being highly-credentialed lawyers who could get a permanent job at these law firms.”
In a report entitled, Disruptive Innovation: New Models of Legal Practice, Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at U.C. Hastings, profiled approximately 40 of what she calls “New Model Law Firms” that provide alternative ways to practice law at a high-level while maintaining a flexible, controlled schedule.
Williams blames traditional law firms for failing to adopt part-time policies that eliminate “the flexibility stigma.”
Law firms are not the only organizations feeling the effects of a millennial workforce that wants more flexibility.
Companies, such as WeWork, that offer space to work on-demand illustrate millennials’ desire for control over their time and the delinking of jobs from the physical office. A recent PWC study on the attitudes of millennial employees found they “do not believe that productivity should be measured by the number of hours worked at the office, but by the output of the work performed. They view work as a ‘thing’ and not a ‘place.'”
Back in 2011, the essayist William Deresiewicz wrote in the New York Times magazine about the shift:
Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration — music, food, good works, what have you — is expressed in those terms.
Call it Generation Sell.
It’s striking. Forty years ago, even 20 years ago, a young person’s first thought, or even second or third thought, was certainly not to start a business. That was selling out — an idea that has rather tellingly disappeared from our vocabulary. Where did it come from, this change? Less Reaganism, as a former student suggested to me, than Clintonism — the heroic age of dot-com entrepreneurship that emerged during the Millennials’ childhood and youth. Add a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.
Because this isn’t only them. The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity.) Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.
A 2015 Millennial Branding study reported that “79 percent of millennials say they would ‘consider quitting their regular job and working for themselves’ in the future. These millennials cited flexibility, the ability to choose what they work on and control of their own destiny as top reasons why they would choose to freelance.”
This trend is creating an interesting shift in the legal industry, which Georgetown’s State of the Legal Market 2016 report criticized as slow-to-adapt to changes in the marketplace, such as the growing resistance and opposition to the “billable hour mentality.”
Companies like Cadence suggest some law graduates are pursuing entrepreneurial paths rather than partnership, once the gold-standard in the legal industry.
Lackey jokes that Cadence is parasitic on Big Law and likes to hire attorneys who have experience at a known firm.
“We rely on brands,” says Lackey, adding, “What will we do when these firms stop burning out their people? I don’t know.”
The new options such as Cadence are allowing many attorneys who might previously have switched careers to stay in law.
The attorneys who work at Cadence firms include stay-at-home moms, solo practitioners supplementing their practice, former law firm partners not quite ready to retire, creative types, and travel junkies who only want to work part of the year.
Talin Tenley said she would be miserable, if she were still working Big Law hours. Instead, she puts in 20 hours a week – “enough so I get to use my brain” but still has time to pick up her daughter and make dinner.
Yale Law graduate Ana Vohryzek said leaving Big Law – she worked five years at Latham & King & Spalding — has given her the flexibility to pursue painting and writing a novel, all while living abroad in in Spain and Mexico City and working remotely.
For Vohryzek, the rigid hourly requirements and culture of Big Law were likely never going to work out.
“The people I saw who excelled at being law firm partners became one-dimensional,” she said. “That was the sacrifice that was required. In order to become a law firm partner, you basically had to give up your passions and your hobbies. You didn’t have time or energy left over to be a well-rounded person.”
Vohryzek added, “That’s always been my worst nightmare.”
Still, there are also many attorneys, particularly those who carry heavy debt loads, for whom temping is not an option.
“If I were sole bread winner, it would make me nervous,” Tenley said of the unpredictability of contract work, where months can pass between assignments.
At Cadence, of the approximately 200 attorneys, around 60 percent of the attorneys work as independent contractors and 40 percent are W-2 employees, depending on various factors such as whether the attorney works off or on site. The hourly rates paid to attorneys vary with experience, but generally a Cadence attorney who works full-time (40 hours per week) makes the equivalent of a mid-level associate salary.
Lackey said Cadence attracts attorneys who like the control.
“It’s … the idea that there has to be a way to not feel totally beholden to someone else,” she said. “And I think that’s the general trend in the economy as a whole, moving more towards freelance work force and not just picking one job and staying for 50 years.”
The culture of high lateral movement also contributed to a need for temporary resources, which Lackey and others aim to capitalize on.
In 2015, the legal recruiting firm Lateral Link purchased Cadence in a transaction that was subsequently restructured as a partnership — in part so that it could retain its women-owned status, according to Lackey.
Lateral Link founder Mike Allen said finding a replacement employee takes six months on average, a period during which law firms “push [work] on to other associates, they push it up to junior partners, which leads to often times attrition, over worked attorneys, or they lose work altogether and it’s lost profits,” says Allen. Companies such as Cadence can provide resources to law firms during employment gaps.
James Jones, senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for the Study of the Legal Profession and former managing partner of Arnold & Porter, said these new model firms represent a categorical shift in the market.
“There’s been a lot of denial about [New Model firms] going on at law firms,” said Jones. “They regard it as a mere sliver of the market that is insignificant. While in fairness it’s not a huge percentage of the market, these companies have really gained a foothold.”