Sonya L. Sigler, best-selling author, founder, and corporate lawyer.

Working on a project basis, whether for 6 weeks or 6 months, not only matches great lawyers with great companies for meaningful work but also helps lawyers develop valuable skills that are also transferable to future positions. These critical skills benefit both the project-based lawyer and the in-house department hiring them.

Lawyers seek project-based work for a variety of reasons. They may be looking to gain a specific experience or skill set before committing to a new full-time position. They may be looking for more flexibility or balance in their career. They may want to take a break from the hierarchy and politics of in-house or law firm environments. No matter the reason, in all cases, they want a position where their expertise can be put to good use, and they can learn something new.

In my case, I took on a contract position directly with a top financial software company to help establish processes and procedures in the legal department and to handle the burgeoning number of licenses and agreements being negotiated during a high-growth phase for the company. They required someone with the expertise to determine which processes and procedures were necessary and to implement them. And, as often happens in a growing company, they had a backlog of tech transactions that needed addressing quickly and confidently.

I quickly realized how valuable this contract experience was for my career, even if I went back to a full-time position, not only for me but also for any future employer.

Let’s unpack what these transferable skills are and the benefits to both the project-based lawyer and the company hiring them.

1. Subject Matter Expertise

Many employers hire a lawyer with specific expertise on a project basis because they don’t have the headcount to hire a person permanently or they have an immediate need without the runway to find the right person. Lawyers working across multiple clients gain valuable subject matter expertise that is almost impossible to acquire while working for one company.

When the financial software company hired me as a contractor to handle legal operations and tech agreements, they had both an immediate need and no full-time headcount. I was the perfect solution. The best practices I had implemented elsewhere, I could implement for them.

For example, I spoke with the EVP of Shared Services for a large steel corporation, who said he hires lawyers on a project basis when they have a need for a particular expertise on a project or new deal, like cross-border employment or municipality-based transactions. The employment expertise requirement started out as a need for help overhauling and reviewing all employment processes and procedures and revising the employee handbook. He added, “These lawyers help us with an immediate need, and we help them learn something new or gain expertise in a different implementation.”

Subject matter experts, whether in privacy law, implementing a contract management system, or employment law, are all the more valuable to their next client because they acquire cross-company or industry knowledge, best practices, and lessons learned across multiple implementations. 

The EVP added one benefit of hiring subject matter experts on a project basis is that he can gauge the quality of the work, and he can expand quickly by hiring the expert full-time when his headcount increase is approved.

2. A Strategic Mindset

Being strategic not only includes being a strategic thinker – thinking about the larger context for the work – it also includes focusing on the desired result. Often, project-based lawyers are called on to give advice, make decisions, or work without all the facts or information, and this strategic mindset helps lawyers thrive in these fast-paced environments.

Working on a project basis empowers attorneys to fully focus on accomplishing the desired result rather than being side-tracked by other considerations or office politics (more on this topic in a minute). As a contractor, I could really focus on which processes and procedures to implement for the biggest impact, as I wasn’t tied to any established process and could implement the most appropriate contract templates and systems for the growth phase of the company.

The General Counsel for the Americas of a global travel company said that when she took on project-based work, she would come in and quickly assess the situation to understand the context of the work. One example was when she was asked to draft service agreements and discovered that what was really needed was a master services agreement with separate statements of work. Through this project-based work across companies, she has learned to ask the right questions to rapidly get to the heart of the matter.

Considering their work in a strategic context across multiple clients allows project-based lawyers to see the situation from different perspectives, enabling them to quickly anticipate new client needs and ‘see around corners.’ Companies benefit from this skill because they receive a better, more contextual work-product, especially when it leads to creating contract templates or documenting standard operating procedures.

3. Increased Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Working across multiple clients on multiple projects helps lawyers develop their self-awareness skills, leading to a higher level of emotional intelligence. Specifically, being flexible and adaptable is almost always a requirement when seeking out project-based work, so cultivating a go-with-the-flow attitude is helpful when entering a new working environment on a recurring basis.

I have also found that approaching a new situation with a good sense of humor is helpful in building strong working relationships quickly. When I went to have a group of executives sign a foreign acquisition agreement at the financial software company, one executive paused, looked me squarely in the eyes, and said, “We didn’t have lawyers for the first ten years; why do we need you?” That question led to a frank conversation and, later, a more formal educational presentation on “What Legal Can Do for You” for the product teams.

The benefit of building emotional intelligence skills is that lawyers can ingratiate themselves quickly in new situations with their ability to develop and cultivate effective working relationships across an organization. This can be especially important when trying to converge on a shared set of expectations in an environment where assumptions are made, or beliefs remain unarticulated.

Back to the GC for the Americas of a global travel company, for her, learning the work styles and communication styles of the various people she worked with was the quickest way to arrive at a shared set of expectations with the client, whether it was understanding their availability, what the (now) clearly defined deliverables were, or the company-preferred way of doing things. Being able to understand the needs quickly helped her deliver the right solution quickly.

The emotional intelligence learned through project-based work, where it’s required to learn a new company culture, meet new people, and understand working protocols, centers of influence, and hierarchies, is invaluable. This skill becomes a powerful asset to companies, especially if they are building out a new legal department or establishing credibility for the legal function.

4. Career Development

From a career development perspective, the contract work at the financial software company and other companies gave me exposure to different ways of doing things, and I could hone my EQ skills for dealing with different personalities, some difficult and some easy, but mostly all very busy, and more importantly, I could build my subject matter expertise in other areas.

The learning gained through project-based work for purposes of career development and career advancement cannot be understated.

5. The Paragon Approach

From a Paragon-candidate perspective, I see two additional skills that set us apart from others: initiative and tech-savviness.

Paragon candidates take the initiative to research clients and learn about key client issues as part of their interview prep process. This initiative extends to their work as mentioned above, with their ability to take action, make progress, and complete the work, often without ‘perfect’ information. Clients benefit from this initiative and curiosity as they receive a more informed, proactive, and curious team member!

Second, Paragon candidates become comfortable with technology and working across clients as they are exposed to a multitude of technologies – from communication systems to contract management databases. They are used to using tech to stay in touch, and they have developed the skills to adapt to new technology quickly and easily, enabling them to integrate into a new team seamlessly. Clients have the benefit of learning from candidates’ exposure to these different technologies and may learn about alternatives that become effective tools for their legal teams going forward.

Project-based team members bring a fresh lens to understanding how other departments work, what their expectations are, and what their department and company culture is. This perspective could take many years to obtain through full-time employment. This level of insight and ability to work flexibly makes them a valuable asset to companies with specific expertise needs or a backlog of work or in a crisis situation.

About The Author

Sonya L. Sigler is the best-selling author of WELCOME to the Next Level and What’s Next for My Career? She’s the founder and CEO of PractiGal coaching and consulting and has been an IP and corporate lawyer for over 25 years. She started her career at Sega and Intuit before moving to start-ups, including Cataphora which pioneered technology-assisted review software for the legal industry.