What Do Contract Attorneys Do?

by Jana
Sep 28, 2021

Contract attorneys play a critical role in the legal system, particularly for small- to mid-size legal firms that need to scale or outsource support for appearance counsel or other contract attorney services. To get the most value from using an appearance attorney, managing partners need to understand the answers to these questions:

  • What do contract attorneys do?
  • How do they work as appearance counsel?
  • Why are contract attorneys beneficial for legal firms?

A contract attorney is an independent legal practitioner who may be hired by a law firm for work on a temporary legal project or on a continuing, as-needed basis. They may specialize in a particular legal field, such as bankruptcy or white-collar crime, but as independent contractors, they engage with clients based on how much time they want to commit to their business. Contract attorneys perform all types of legal tasks, including researching, preparing pleadings, filing motions, and executing contracts.

As revealed by a 2020 Statista Survey, 51.2% of legal firms reported that they actively use contract lawyers as part of their staffing strategy. This is particularly relevant in today’s job market. As more attorneys choose to become independent or freelance contractors in preference over joining larger firms, managing partners have an advantage—a greater pool of quality freelance lawyers available for hire.

Contract attorneys provide crucial support for legal firms that need to hire appearance counsel in neighboring jurisdictions or find additional legal talent on short notice. Firms may also choose to work with contract attorneys when they require a flexible workforce to scale for projects and fluctuating workloads.

Now that you understand the definition of a contract attorney, let’s explore what an appearance attorney—one type of contract attorney —can do for legal firms.

What Do Contract Attorneys Do as Appearance Counsel? 

Many attorneys who work as contract lawyers focus primarily on providing appearance counsel services. Also called appearance counsel, an appearance attorney is just one type of contract attorney; however, not all contract attorneys work as appearance attorneys.

Appearance attorneys “appear” at different court hearings in their local jurisdictions and cover the hearing on behalf of the attorney of record. Appearance attorneys usually have experience in a wide range of legal matters, such as debt collection and civil or criminal cases, and bankruptcy hearings.

Contract attorneys provide a broad range of legal services such as:

  • Research for ongoing legal projects
  • Preparation of pleadings, motions, discovery requests, contracts, and other legal items
  • Leading depositions
  • Trial preparation
  • Court appearances

However, appearance attorneys are focused on administrative functions such as:

  • Represent a client in court on behalf of a primary attorney
  • Providing case updates to a judge
  • Rescheduling hearings
  • Collecting court orders
  • Reporting on court outcomes

Firms that hire contract attorneys to fulfill duties of appearance counsel quickly realize the substantive impact that this decision can have on efficiency and effectiveness of their practice. Those that choose to hire from an appearance counsel vendor with a custom-built platform like Docketly reap even more benefits.

By hiring through a platform, firms have access to a larger pool of lawyers who have already been vetted, reducing the time spent on hiring. In addition, an excellent appearance counsel vendor can help a firm by automating the tasks involved, such as reporting, that might normally require extensive labor hours. This, in turn, frees up staff to use their expertise at the highest level possible, rather than fulfilling a task that a computer can handle.

Why Are Contract Attorneys Beneficial for Legal Firms?

In most cases, the majority of legal firms consist of just one or two legal practitioners and some support personnel. A small staff can be challenging for growing legal firms, limiting the firm’s ability to take on large legal projects or multiple clients at one time. Contract attorney services are one way that smaller firms can increase their billable hours and provide legal service while scaling up.

Here are a few key ways that appearance counsel contract attorneys are beneficial for legal firms:

1. Outsourcing Appearance Counsel Increases Billable Hours When Staffing is Difficult

Currently, many legal firms face hiring challenges in a rapidly evolving labor market, which means that firms need to remain responsive to the requirements of the best legal talent. According to Bloomberg Law, “Bandwidth seems to be stretched thin as more attorneys are seeing their colleagues overworked (37%) and their firms lacking in sufficient personnel to handle the current workload (33%)—increases of 25 and 22 percentage points, respectively, since last year.” Firms are often limited in their capacity to provide legal services due to a short supply of full-time legal professionals on staff.

At the same time, an increasing number of legal professionals are choosing to work independently for the freedom and work-life balance that it offers.

Hiring contract attorneys as appearance counsel can be an effective method for increasing billable hours and completing more projects without diluting the capacity of the full-time staff of the law firm.

2. Hiring Appearance Counsel ReducesTime Spent Traveling to Court

For hearings that are out of state or in a neighboring jurisdiction, hiring appearance counsel to represent a firm helps reduce travel time. Not only can this help firms expand legal services to clients without significant additional cost, but it also helps practices free time that can be devoted to other higher-level project priorities.

3. Contracting with Appearance Attorneys Helps Legal Firms Scale Effectively

One of the major advantages for legal firms using appearance contract attorneys is that attorneys on contract provide an effective and affordable method for scaling staff capacity on a per-project basis. Variable workloads can be difficult to manage with full-time staff. A flexible workforce increases a legal firm’s ability to take on large, temporary, legal projects (and projects in new jurisdictions) as they arise.

How Does Docketly Help Connect Legal Firms with Appearance Counsel Contract Attorneys?

Docketly has over 10,000 contract attorneys available for hire as appearance counsel to support law firms of all sizes. Every contract lawyer in our nationwide network is continually validated for insurance, good standing, and clean background checks.

We use a proprietary software system to meet the needs of industry-leading law firms and to provide a consistently effective and low-cost solution to sourcing contract attorneys in any state. Every attorney is FDCPA trained with a proven track record of experience.

Docketly assists legal firms by reducing the time it takes to source appearance counsel, ensuring a strong standard of performance, and helping standardize processes to create consistent workflows and reporting across all projects. To learn more about how to hire a contract attorney quickly and easily, please schedule a demo with us today.

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