Now in Legal Rebels:
Posted Aug 01, 2011 06:40 am CDT
Laurie Rowen and Erin Giglia would like to add a new work status to the law dictionary: freelance. The 2009 founders of the 24-lawyer Montage Legal Group in Irvine, Calif., which bills itself as a network of freelance attorneys, would also ask that you not confuse Montage attorneys with contract attorneys.
“We’re not a law firm, and we don’t like to say we’re an outsourcing agency,” Rowen says. “The whole ‘contract attorney’ title has a bad connotation. People wonder if you got fired from a law firm or if there’s something wrong with you that you can’t get your own clients. But when you bind 20 women together, these women get the respect they deserve.”
The Montage business model is a new twist on the increasingly common contract-lawyer model. Recent news stories have cited increased use of contract attorneys, including work for some of the biggest firms in BigLaw.
“Contract lawyers are something everybody’s talking about and doing in some capacity,” says John Olmstead, principal at the legal management consulting firm Olmstead & Associates in St. Louis. “It’s becoming much more acceptable, from larger firms to smaller ones, for more types of work. Montage is putting a different spin on it, and there’s room in the market for others.”
What’s unique about Montage? All its lawyers hail from formidable firms. They work virtually for both Montage clients and their own (if they choose), and get about 80 percent of the $75-$150 hourly rate Montage charges clients.
They also don’t do scut work. “Our lawyers handle very substantive legal work,” says Rowen. “You can find much cheaper attorneys to do low-rate document review and appearances when you need just a body with a law degree.”
Montage’s lawyers are also all women, though Rowen says men could join.
“It’s mostly mothers who are attracted to this arrangement,” she says. “About 15 are new mothers who came directly from a law firm or in-house. We anticipate in about five years, when their kids are in kindergarten, they’ll want to go to a firm.
“We hope having Montage [on their resumé] will show they’ve been working and help them get a job,” Rowen says. “That’s better than a staffing agency, where your name is hidden and you have nothing on your resumé.
“We have another subset we call ‘relaunchers,’ ” Rowen adds. “They were at big law firms and became stay-at-home moms. We help them get back in the workforce by doing freelance projects.”
Then there’s former Howrey partner Isabelle Carrillo Smith, who became the first BigLaw partner to join Montage. In June, she declined part-time status at a BigLaw firm to work freelance and spend more time with her three young children.
“I ultimately decided that at this point in my life a freelance practice would provide me with more control over my time and projects,” she says. “I feel that with the support of like-minded women at Montage Legal Group and the overall reputation of the group, I could continue to practice as well as pursue other options in the legal community, like public interest.”
To steer clear of ethics snafus, Montage attorneys work primarily in California, where all are licensed, though they do take occasional out-of-state research projects. “Our attorneys don’t do anything that would constitute the unauthorized practice of law,” Rowen says.
The firm’s ideal client is an ex-big-firm lawyer who’s formed a smaller firm. Take Gary Wolensky, a former Snell & Wilmer partner who opened Hewitt Wolensky in 2009 in Newport Beach, Calif.
“We believe in growth and expansion—but not too quickly,” he says. “When we have overflow, rather than immediately hiring yet another attorney, I turn to Montage because many of the attorneys I know there are from Snell & Wilmer. They’re excellent attorneys, they have a big-firm pedigree, and the quality of their work is outstanding.”
Wolensky hires Montage Legal Group about once a month for 10- to 50-hour projects like product liability motions, discovery responses and the occasional employment law or trade-secret misappropriation matter.
“I wouldn’t go to any other contract attorneys,” he says. “As long as this works, we can grow at the pace we want.”
Montage’s business model is just the beginning of the melding of today’s hottest legal trends. “You’ve got outsourcing, unbundling of services and virtual law practices,” Olmstead says. “We’re going to see more of this, with additional variations as time goes by.”