What is Flexible Talent?

Though it’s been around for twenty years or more, the flexible talent model is a game changer that’s redefining legal operations.

Cristine Patterson is the President of Entrusted Advisors, a full-service legal services company that specializes in building relationships between highly skilled attorneys and legal teams. We sat down with Cristine to talk about being a “solutionist” and get her take on the value of flexible talent in uncertain times.

So tell us about the “flexible talent model.” What is it, exactly? How does it work?
It’s really all about connecting skilled experts with people who need support, in a way that maximizes agility for both sides. Whether the need involves a specific practice area or just general knowledge of how legal departments work, these attorneys can come in on a contract basis and supplement the existing team for as long as necessary. They’re able to fill in the gaps for traditional legal teams, whether that’s within a corporate legal department or a law firm.

What kinds of gaps can a legal team address with flexible talent?
Well, there are any number of situations that might leave a team temporarily shorthanded –  an illness or pregnancy, a really large matter that requires extra support, or having additional matters that arise unexpectedly, to name just a few. Certainly the last few months have brought about cuts in both budgets and staff, as well as widespread disruption and reallocation of resources. Flexible talent can be a big help in those circumstances. 

It sounds like the flexibility benefits everyone. What are the different advantages that attorneys and clients enjoy?
You know, there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to flexible talent, but it really is a win/win approach. The legal team can avoid the investment in a permanent hire, or the expense of sending everything to a vendor or to outside counsel. Traditionally, that would have been the most common approach, but it’s probably not that efficient – especially when what you really need is someone who can come in and work seamlessly alongside the other attorneys on your team.

For lawyers, the biggest benefit is the flexibility they have in managing their practice and their time. They can come in for a six or twelve month project, they can work twenty hours per week or forty hours per week. The possibilities are really endless in terms of what the engagements look like.

So how did you find yourself on this path?

It was something of an organic transformation, really. I’m a former practicing attorney, but at a certain point in my career journey, I realized that the traditional practice of law was not a great fit for me. So about four years into my practice, I began to transition into recruiting, and before long I learned about the flexible talent model. I just loved the idea that lawyers could continue to do substantive work, but do it in a  way that would allow them to enjoy a more diverse range of options. That’s been my focus ever since, and it has really led me to think of myself as a solutionist. A professional problem solver. I’m able to take what I learned in my practice – my understanding of the pain points and the frustrations – and translate that into an approach that represents both an effective solution for clients and an effective way for lawyers to practice. And that’s really exciting.

You mentioned misconceptions. In what ways do people tend to misunderstand the notion of the flexible talent model?
The most common assumption is that these are lawyers who didn’t make the cut at a law firm or in a corporate legal department. And that as a result, you’re somehow getting subpar talent. But that’s just not the case. These are people who have worked with Fortune 500 companies and AMLaw 200 firms. They’ve got the credentials and the experience, but they found themselves needing to take a step back and create a better work/life balance. Maybe they needed to care for an ill family member, or they wanted to focus on family and children, or they simply wanted to have more time to pursue a different interest. These lawyers have chosen to think about what they really want out of their practice and to mold their career path a little differently. 

And then on the other side of the table, I think attorneys often have similar questions and uncertainties. They wonder what kind of work they’ll be able to do, whether they’ll really get substantive work, what kinds of companies will engage them. These are high performing lawyers, and they want to be sinking their teeth into really interesting work. Even though they’ve prioritized work / life balance, they still want to have a career that’s meaningful, and when they realize they can do that through flexible engagements, it opens up a whole new world for them. 

Do you think the pandemic is having an impact on the way people approach their professional lives?
Well, it’s definitely forcing people to think about doing things differently. When the pandemic struck, so many industries saw large scale reductions in staff, and legal was no different. As a result, there’s a lot of really strong talent on the market – people who probably didn’t think they were going to find themselves in those circumstances. Things changed overnight, and a lot of people probably didn’t have much of a plan B, but they’re finding that flexible work can work for them, in ways they never thought about before. The flexibility means it’s easier to care for kids who aren’t in school, to be there for family members who need support, and to manage the myriad unexpected situations we all find ourselves dealing with these days. And not having a gap in their resume is really important, both from a professional and a personal standpoint.

And what about the legal departments? How has COVID-19 impacted them?
Most were expected to cut their legal spend and their budgets without much warning. Priorities had to be reassessed to keep the business moving with new limitations. And that disruption has also necessitated thinking differently. How can we reallocate whatever resources we have to work with to maximize efficiency? Can we find alternative solutions? Maybe we don’t have five full time people on staff anymore, but we really need one person who’s got very strong transactional skills or who understands how to negotiate a specific kind of SaaS agreement. The work still needs to be done, and legal teams are having to rethink how that’s going to happen. If they can access a broad and diverse talent pool, they can find the expertise they need while remaining nimble and adjusting to changing circumstances more quickly. And if the last few months have shown us anything, it’s that challenging the status quo ultimately just helps us get better, and that we absolutely have to be resilient and adaptable, no matter what role we find ourselves in.

This has been great, Cristine. Thanks for the perspective and the insights.