This fourth and final article in the mini-series discussing the challenges various types of law practices face today considers quite possibly the most challenged of them all – agency legal departments. Previously discussed was the challenges faced by solo practitioners and small firms, law firms, and corporate legal departments. Of all these workplaces, local, state, and federal agencies and institutions grapple with some of the deepest budget cuts in our country and their legal departments, while taking on more and more work, are no exception.
What challenges do these legal departments face?
- Unprecedented case loads
- An appreciable backlog of files
- Deep budget cuts
- Hiring freezes
- Insufficient staff
- The need to do more with less
How does work get done under such extreme circumstances? Oftentimes it doesn’t; at least not right away. It’s a matter of dealing with each issue as it becomes an urgent matter of priority. Until then, it waits while other urgent matters of priority are handled.
As a result, attorneys and staff are under constant pressure and stress. Feelings of being unable to accomplish anything or get ahead. Feelings of overwhelm – which decreases productivity and, depending on the work environment, can lower morale and lead to job dissatisfaction. This, in turn, leads to employee departures, which leads to additional increases in workloads across remaining attorneys and staff. And, the cycle repeats itself. Unfortunately for agencies, this has proven to be a long-term, rather than short-term, event. What we had hoped would be budget cuts for “just one more year, until the economy turns around” has turned into a decade-plus adventure.
Many attempts have been made to address budgeting, staff, and work-flow issues, including re-delegation of tasks; re-classification of job duties, descriptions, and titles; departmental and organizational restructuring; and, use of temporary staffing services. Reorganization can help distribute workflow processes more evenly, but it doesn’t change the mass amount of work that still exists or address the continual influx of legal matters. Temporary staffing services provide similar relief, but that relief is both costly and temporary. As a result, more and more agencies are turning to independent and government contractors to address workload issues when budgets won’t provide for additional employees or for projects that are impermanent.
Contractors are fairly easy to add into the budget since they cost a fraction of what employees do, are considerably more economical than staffing agencies, and can be classified differently within the budget. They can be used for short-term or longer term assignments to suit the needs of the agency. If the need continues, the contract is simply extended in the next budget period. There is no middleman or third-party fees; the agency works directly with the contractor. Costs are reduced for both the legal department and the agency as a whole since the need for payroll, taxes, benefits, overhead, and human resources are removed from the picture. The only cost to the agency is the cost of the work actually performed; and, the agency decides how much or how little assistance is needed.
The challenges agencies and institutions face in today’s world, with complex legal issues and unwavering budget constraints, are exceptional. Contractors have become a key component in addressing those challenges.