It’s always challenging for a business to arrange cover when an employee goes on leave.
But it’s especially challenging when it’s their in-house counsel.
Whether it’s for parental leave (maternity or paternity leave), medical leave, or a sabbatical, finding a qualified, reliable lawyer to gap-fill for a short-term contract is a big ask.
One often-overlooked solution to this challenge is to hire an alternative law firm to fill the gap. Hiring outside fractional counsel offers several advantages over traditional coverage options.
In this post, we take a look at various considerations and different coverage options when an in-house lawyer goes on leave.
Re-allocate the work internally
If you have a team of in-house lawyers, you could try divvying up the leaving lawyer’s work between them. But chances are, your team likely has a lot on their plate and won’t necessarily have the bandwidth to give this additional work the attention it deserves. In addition, if keeping your legal department happy and incentivized to stay is on your radar, giving them a lot more work for the same pay isn’t advised.
Hire a lawyer through HR
Another option is to hire a contract lawyer through your HR department. However, this involves a lot of work and effort for something that is inherently temporary. This option involves posting the role on job boards, which requires a time and resources investment, not to mention the cost of the ad itself, which on top-tier legal job boards like Ontario Reports, can cost thousands of dollars per ad. You’ll also need to review resumes, conduct interviews and vet candidates, which is time-consuming and without a robust vetting process, doesn’t guarantee you’ll end up with a qualified candidate.
If you do find a qualified candidate, you then have to go through the negotiation process, which can take weeks. You’ll also have to consider the time it will take to accommodate for a notice period at their current role. If they do turn down your offer, you’ll end up back at square one.
If you’re able to hire a lawyer that’s willing to take a 12-18 month contract position, you also risk the chance that they continue to look for a full-time role. If they land their dream job, they’ll have no qualms about leaving their contract role with your company, leaving you high and dry mid-contract.
Hiring outside counsel
You could also try approaching your existing law firm and ask them to send you a lawyer from their firm for a secondment to fill the leave. For big clients that hold a lot of weight with the firm, some law firms will oblige and only charge the client for their lawyer’s annual salary and associated costs. However, this kind of offer usually comes with strings attached. In return, they’ll likely expect the client to use them for more legal work in the future or for the secondee to send substantial work to the firm during their time filling the leave.
Also, a law firm likely won’t send one of their best lawyers (which they can bill out at 4-5x [or sometimes more] of their annual salary) for a secondment, so there’s a chance you’ll be getting a legal professional that’s not top-tier. And a year-long secondment isn’t great for a lawyer’s career development – especially if they’re on partner track – so they might not be too happy about their new placement, which isn’t ideal for morale.
You could also go to your law firm and simply outsource all of the work to their lawyers on an hourly basis, but at $400-$500 (or more) an hour, those costs will rack up pretty quickly if you’re looking to fill a full-time role.
Hiring an alternative law firm
While the traditional options for leave cover offer many drawbacks, using an alternative law firm provides the flexibility and scalability many organizations need when it comes to gap-filling.
With an alternative law firm, you get a qualified, vetted legal expert to join your team on a full- or part-time basis. We’ve covered the benefits of working with fractional counsel in a previous blog post, but there are some specific advantages this model offers when it comes to covering leave:
- Avoid additional costs: You might pay a full-time replacement an annual salary, but you could spend as much as 30% or more on top of that for EI, CPP, benefits, pensions, cell phone, professional fees, insurance, vacation time, etc. None of which you have to cover if you hire fractional in-house counsel.
- Guaranteed coverage for the whole contract period: Your lawyer won’t leave you high and dry mid-contract. Most high-performing alternative law firms have very low attrition rates – around 1-2%. They don’t leave us, so they won’t leave you.
- Easily flex your legal support up or down: You might decide your company can get by on less legal support during your in-house counsel’s leave. Or your in-house lawyer may choose only to return part-time, especially if they’re returning from medical leave. With an alternative law firm, you can flex up and down as needed, moving from 1-2 days a week to 3-4 as it suits your business. For unexpected medical leaves, your outside team can also gap fill on short notice.
- Plan ahead for easy transitions: Fractional lawyers can join your team as soon as you need them, offering a month overlap before and after any type of leave to provide a smoother handover.
- Retain institution knowledge: If you hire someone on a short-term contract, once that contract is up, they’ll move onto their next role and take everything they’ve learned with them. With fractional in-house counsel, you don’t lose that institutional knowledge after a year or more. You can keep outside counsel to work for your business after their initial contract finishes on an hourly or ad-hoc basis.
So what are some top tips for planning for coverage with fractional counsel when your in-house counsel goes on leave? Here’s what we recommend:
Connect with the law firm 2-3 months before the leave starts
This will help get the process started with the goal of a 1-month overlap between the replacement starting and the in-house counsel going on leave. This will also give you time to evaluate the incoming lawyer to ensure they’re the right fit for your organization.
Think about your in-house counsel’s areas of expertise
Do they provide advice in employment, advertising, and commercial contracts? While you may not find an exact match from your alternative law firm, you could find a close replacement with skills in other areas not previously covered by your in-house team. This will provide additional value and expertise that wasn’t expected. It also provides the ability to re-allocate areas of responsibility in your department, allowing the rest of your in-house team an opportunity to try different practice areas.
Consider more senior counsel
Your in-house counsel may have been a full-time associate, but it might make more sense to have a more senior lawyer replace them on a part-time basis. A senior lawyer can often accomplish the same amount of work in a shorter period of time, while also providing additional valuable insight and advice from their many years of practicing.
Any way you look at it, covering for leave is expensive. But once you’ve accepted the cost element, your best option is to find a legal partner that will offer certainty and stability during these periods of transition for your business.
Need help managing leave cover for your in-house counsel? Caravel Law is an alternative legal firm with 50 qualified and experienced lawyers to help support your legal needs. Get in touch with our team today to find out more.
The information provided in this article is not intended to be legal advice. Many factors unknown to us may affect the applicability of this content to your particular circumstances.