The Twin Cities legal market just got a tad more competitive with the arrival of Counsel on Call, a consortium of independent attorneys that contracts with corporate clients to provide specific legal services. The national firm sees ample opportunity in the Twin Cities with its Fortune 500 companies dotting the landscape.
Within the next two or three months, the Nashville-based organization intends to hire up to 40 attorneys for its Minnesota roster to be available for assignment to different clients.
"We'll take as many as are qualified," said Michael Blaes, director of the Twin Cities office for Counsel on Call.
The company bills itself as a legal resource providing project management services at lower costs with the goal of driving down legal expenses. It says it is not, however, a temp agency that provides lawyers for short periods of time to clients looking for temporary help.
"We focus on efficiency and cost savings," Blaes said. "We do project management with a team approach."
The Counsel on Call concept is not entirely new. Recruiting firms and temp agencies such as Beacon Hill Staffing Group have been filling corporate spots in the Twin Cities for more than two decades.
But in Counsel on Call's model, the emphasis is on cost savings. Its services range from providing one lawyer at a time to assigning teams for large projects to consulting on a client's overall legal processes.
Blaes said the largest chunk of Counsel on Call's assignments are in the area of document discovery, the sometime tedious early stage of litigation where reams or gigabytes of documents need to be reviewed to see what is relevant to a lawsuit or a criminal case. The company also performs duties in the review of merger and acquisition material and regulatory compliance issues.
Minneapolis will be the ninth office for Counsel on Call, which was established in 2000 by attorney and CEO Jane Allen. In addition to Nashville, offices are in Atlanta, Dallas and Memphis. Boston, Chicago, Charlotte, N.C., and Bentonville, Ark., where Wal-Mart is a client. It has 800 attorneys in its fold and claims to have saved clients more than $250 million in legal costs last year.
Discount of one-half to one-third
Counsel on Call's rates range from $50 an hour for document review work to $150 an hour for a lawyer handling more complex matters or serving as a project manager. Those amounts are about one-half to one-third the rates that would be charged by a first-tier Minneapolis law firm.
The lawyers recruited by Counsel on Call typically have seven years of private practice experience and are looking for an alternative career path. The company says they are the type who don't want to follow the big-firm grind to become partner or take an in-house corporate counsel staff position, both of which can require work weeks that exceed 60 or 70 hours.
"This is an alternative to a traditional law practice," Blaes said. "These are people who find flexibility to be more appealing. They might have children or outside interests but still want to stay current and maintain a significant income."
Blaes wouldn't name the firm's small-but-growing list of Twin Cities clients, citing confidentiality. But, he said, they "are some of the biggest in town."
Legal analysts see a strong market for Counsel on Call and other attorney-placement firms given the number of attorneys who have left law firms for both personal and economic reasons or went into solo practice after graduating from law school because no other jobs were available.
"There is no problem hiring people to do this work," said Herbert Kritzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law. "The challenge is that this can be largely a dead-end job."
Cindy Eidnes, division director for the Minneapolis office of Boston-based Beacon Hill, said demand remains strong for part-time and temporary attorneys from both corporate clients and other law firms.
Driving that demand, Eidnes said, is a desire by companies and law firms not to be overstocked with unproductive attorneys.
"In good times and bad, corporations have been trying to get their legal costs under control and that's not going to change even if things get rosy again," Eidnes said.
While Counsel on Call seeks corporate clients, it sometimes works with other law firms in providing staff for specific projects usually at the behest of their corporate clients.
"The way we measure success is in savings for clients. We do that by keeping overhead low," said Blaes, a former compliance attorney for U.S. Bancorp.
Indeed, Counsel on Call's Minneapolis office is a small windowless office with a desk and a chair in an office building near Lake Calhoun.
"We're up and running and ready to go. At the moment, it's me," Blaes said last week.