Stacey McConnell is the co-founder of The Adept Legal Talent Group, a new legal services company connecting sophisticated freelance attorneys with law firms and legal departments. The A.L.T. Group was founded with the philosophy that traditional legal roles don’t allow for the participation of enough women and that the industry is ready for a new model, one that encourages women to participate in high-end legal work, but on their own terms and with the autonomy a freelance career allows.
Sherri Boutwell (SB): What led you to start a business focused on helping to create a new business model for women lawyers and other lawyers looking for more flexibility?
Stacey McConnell (SM): I started my career at Kelley Drye & Warren in New York City. I was lucky to find an amazing group of mentors—most of whom I’m still in close contact with—who did very sophisticated work and offered incredible training. The culture at KDW is outstanding, and I feel that there is no better place to practice. Life is funny though, and in law school, I had written my law review note on RICO and tobacco litigations. It was an academic interest of mine, and when a friend sent me the job posting for the trial team for U.S. v. Philip Morris, I applied, thinking it was a long shot. When I was offered the job I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and reluctantly left Kelley Drye. My years at the DOJ were similarly formative—I was surrounded by incredibly talented and dedicated lawyers doing fascinating and important work and solidified my love of the law.
After a significant career hiatus, I started this business for several reasons, the most urgent of which is that I don’t believe law “works” for enough women. I had suspended my career to be the primary caretaker of my young children because I knew I couldn’t continue practicing at the level I wanted to and also raise children the way I wanted to. I knew countless other women in the same situation. This was primarily because there was a dearth of options offering any flexibility. I really felt and still feel that women are facing false choices in their careers and are backed into corners unnecessarily. I felt that there had to be a better way to practice law that honors the academic rigor and challenge but allows for meaningful family time. I don’t believe this should be an either/or proposition.
From a business perspective, I recognized a largely untapped pool of talent in women like myself who would like to remain active in the legal world but on flexible terms. Harnessing this talent pool is a win-win: we are highly educated, well-trained, motivated, and, given the chance, will continue to prove our merit and add wonderful value to clients. It was important to me to start a business that would enable more people to work in a field they love, offer excellent legal counsel to clients, and feel comfortable with the balance in their lives.
On a macro scale, I worry that the gender imbalance in law could translate into larger societal repercussions because this imbalance reduces the influence women can have on broader areas such as policy, government service, and representation in our judicial branch. We simply can’t afford for women’s voices to be marginalized because they leave law in droves. I wanted to be a part of a solution rather than just bemoaning the well-identified problem, or accepting it as just the way the world works.
All of this being said, we have great men in our network as well and to suggest this is a women-only issue is not correct. What legal careers look like generally, what it means to practice law, must start changing with the world. Allowing for some portion of your legal team to be working flexibly only adds to the diversity around any given table, and innovation and creativity require this diversity.
SB: Why should a firm or business consider using a contract attorney?
SM: Contract or freelance attorneys—especially those vetted by and included in high-achieving networks—can be a wonderful way to access subject matter expertise in a flexible way. Typically, these lawyers can do any work a full-time employee would, but using them on a contract basis can be very beneficial. It is a boon to access attorneys with great legal educations that can slide in and do the work without a lot of training. Freelance lawyers appreciate that many times these roles come with flexibility, like the ability to work remotely during the hours that work best for them.
Firms and businesses alike are striving to do more with less, and a contract attorney can mean great savings on an employee hire, not just because hourly rates are competitive but because of the savings in time and money on the recruiting side. Using freelance attorneys can make smaller firms more competitive and more full service. We hear all the time that a small firm has passed on a case that they wanted to take due to staffing concerns. Hiring outstanding lawyers who have the expertise required for a new matter can allow those firms to retain the work they’d otherwise refer out. Oftentimes firms are looking for ways to free up time for business development and so using freelance lawyers makes sense. Many firms use freelance lawyers as test runs for eventual hiring—both to determine whether a role makes sense and to learn if the lawyer is best for the role. This gives firms the ability to preview the fit without a lot of risks.
SB: What considerations should a firm keep in mind when using contract attorneys?
SM: Most states allow for the contract work to be up-charged to the client, but many firms choose not to do so, opting instead to bill as a pass-through cost. If your engagement with your client permits up-charging the contract attorney’s fee, ethical rules may still dictate that the client should be notified that a contract attorney is working on the project. To avoid any perception of impropriety, disclosure is the best policy. Using very well vetted professionals whose backgrounds are akin to those of your full-time employees helps to address concerns about work quality. Finally, as with any hire, a proper conflicts check is necessary.
SB: What issues must freelance lawyers keep in mind when engaging with a new firm or business?
SM: In a nutshell: keep excellent records. Your documentation of work is critical on the front end so that conflict checks can be run efficiently and effectively. As the project proceeds, billing must be handled with attention to detail, as hours, pay, and tax implications may vary with each job. It is also important that expectations are clear and are met. Be willing to communicate as needed and don’t be afraid to ask questions and be clear on direction as you move forward.
SB: What can contract attorneys do to stand out to clients seeking to hire someone?
SM: First, do some serious thinking about your work and in what environment you thrive. A role that is remote and has little day-to-day interaction might not be the best fit for someone who craves connection with colleagues. Think about what is your best-case work environment, and attack those opportunities first. When applying for roles, present a professional and well-drafted CV that is tailored to the opportunity.
Most of our employer clients are concerned with how contract lawyers will work with the existing legal team. Highlighting your ability to collaborate is key. Cite specific examples of successes at work and be sure to express enthusiasm when describing your own contribution. Knowing how you handle adversity or how you respond to challenges at work is also important—have examples at the ready of how you handled a difficult matter, e.g., a disagreement among colleagues.
Another way to distinguish yourself is to make clear your growth-mindset. Be able to describe with specificity a mistake you have learned from. It will help you to be seen as human, flexible, and willing to learn. Additionally, I think it is important to be enthusiastic about opportunities and make clear that you want to be a part of the client’s success. Candidates who are true to themselves and their talents stand out. Don’t shy away from describing outside interests or providing context about family obligations. In our experience, knowing a bit more about a well-rounded individual is not a detriment to their application. In summary, present yourself in such a way that the client knows you take the work seriously and are ready and willing to contribute to the success of the project, firm or company.
And lastly, joining a network of contract attorneys can be a good way to put yourself forward in the freelance world. Many networks have very high standards for admittance, so once you have been invited to join, you have taken a step forward toward to being a desirable candidate for client work.
About the Author
Sherri Boutwell a founding partner of Boutwell Fay LLP and is a former member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.