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Life as a locum

Hiring a lawyer on a short-term contract can have great benefits if the parties get the details right.

Short-term contracts can be good for lawyers

Hiring locum on a short-term contract can suit the needs of both the lawyer and the law organization. But agreeing on fees and contract terms can be a challenge.

Rhona McCallum Lichtenwald, a lawyer and mediator with Hillcrest Law & Mediation, has filled in on many short-term contracts over her three-decade legal career.

“There is a whole world out there of contract legal work. I’ve done tons of it,” says Lichtenwald, who has had contracts with the Legal Aid Society, the Law Foundation of British Columbia, the Law Society of British Columbia and with private firms. “There is contract work, consulting work, and also overflow work, like helping out a lawyer who is overwhelmed but doesn’t necessarily want to take a break. You come in and act almost like a new associate, or a part-time lawyer, to help this lawyer get through these busy files.”

After teaching at the Law Society of British Columbia’s bar admission course for 10 years, Lichtenwald returned to private practice in 2015.

“I was starting from scratch again,” says Lichtenwald, who is based in Vancouver. “I knew it would take time to get reestablished after being out of circulation for so long.”

Lichtenwald signed up with the locum registry through the Law Society. Over the years, she has assisted a general practitioner with complex family law files and also filled in doing a maternity leave for one of her former students, a busy family lawyer whose clients needed to be handled while she was away.

Karuna Belani, a sole practitioner who practises in family law and estate planning and litigation, is also registered as a locum lawyer with the Law Society of British Columbia and does short-term contracts. 

“I do piece-meal work on files,” says Belani, who is based in Richmond, B.C. “If there is some backlog, I will help assist on certain files, or if there is a file that requires a big chunk of work because there is something complex within it, then I’m working on that part only.”


A boon for flexibility

Belani says her favourite thing about working on short-term contracts is flexibility.

“If my schedule allows for it, then I definitely take on the work, but I have the ability to say that I’m not able to help with this file, but I will help you with the next one,” she says. 

Warren Bongard, the president and co-founder of ZSA Legal Recruitment, says his firm can help companies and law firms looking to hire someone on a short-term basis.

Some short-term contracts can be due to maternity leaves, sick leaves, and large projects, such as due diligence for mergers and transition transactions or document review projects for litigation, says Bongard.

Short-term contracts can be good for lawyers looking for some flexibility in their careers, he says.

“These lawyers are making a career of being flexible and jumping from contract to contract,” Bongard says.


Benefits to employers

Hiring lawyers on contract can also benefit an employer, says Bongard.

“There is no long-term employment costs and you don’t have to deal with termination and severance,” he explains.

Bongard recommends that law firms or other organizations consider the costs and benefits of hiring a lawyer on a short-term basis. 

“The question they should be asking is: is it worthwhile for me to outsource this to a third-party law firm, or should I internalize it with a contract lawyer who can come in at a fixed or reduced hourly rate?” he says. 

Lichtenwald also recommends that lawyers who are looking for a locum to fill in do this cost-benefit analysis.

“If a lawyer is not making a lot of money, it may be difficult for them to pay someone to be in their stead when they are not going to make some kind of profit out of it or at least keep their practice going,” she says. “They have to be able to pay someone and their practice has to be self-sustaining enough to do that.”

Lichtenwald says that there can also be a lot of logistical issues in setting up a locum.

“If you live in a remote location, you may need to pay for someone to come into town and also consider where they are going to stay if they don’t live locally,” she explains.

For other short-term contacts, it can be difficult to negotiate rates.

“It’s been a challenge over the years to figure out what to charge for short-term contracts,” says Lichtenwald.

Some organizations, such as the Law Foundation of B.C., have a specific rate allocated for contract work.

“If you are doing a contract for a law firm, then that’s something you have to negotiate. And you have to sell it to them that they are still going to make money,” says Lichtenwald.

Belani advises other lawyers considering working as a locum or a short-term contract lawyer to check their insurance policies with their provincial law society.

“You will need to know what is covered by the insurance,” she says. “Is it only for your practice, or does it also include work you do for other lawyers in this contract arrangement?”


Make it a more visible thing to do

For all their benefits, it can be difficult for a new lawyer to find opportunities for short-term contracts.

“It’s hard to come by such opportunities. I don’t know what lawyers are needing contractual help on files,” says Belani. “From an awareness point of view, it would be really good if the Law Society made this a more visible thing to do. If bigger firms or other lawyers who are overwhelmed can say, we want you to come and help for a little while.”

Lichtenwald recommends that lawyers looking for contract work add their names to their provincial law society’s locum registry and also advertise on their website.

But, she says, a lot of contract work is based on connections.

“One way is to get involved with the Canadian Bar Association and attend meetings and spread the word,” she recommends. “When I was trying to get established, I attended CBA meetings about once a month in person just to get the word out that I am back, I am doing contract work and here is my business card.”