Because of the project-based nature of the work, contract attorneys must constantly consider the potential for downtime, both planned and unplanned.
In the eDiscovery context, for example, preliminary searches may set expectations for a large, long-term project but skillful negotiation and adjustment of search terms (or the use of analytics), entire populations can disappear overnight. Suddenly, a recruiter is making a late-evening phone call to report that training will be delayed or that there will be no work tomorrow. Similarly, for contract attorneys working in more substantive roles, the ability to keep yourself constantly engaged may be at the mercy of someone else completing a necessary task or even for clients to approve a budget. Almost none of these issues are within the control of the individual who is most significantly impacted.
Whenever downtime occurs there are a few critical steps that, if taken, can help keep your utilization high and stress levels low.
First, evaluate the cause of the downtime. Depending on the source of the delay, the actual cause may not be clear to you, but consider the information you have been given. If, for instance, a new project is delayed, has your recruiter or agency provided you with a clear indication of when training will occur? Using this knowledge, consider first whether it is wise to remain committed to the matter. Often, a short delay will have little impact in the context of the larger relationship, but if your project is repeatedly delayed, sometimes it is necessary to move on.
Second, always be looking for new opportunities. I have Posse List emails directed to my phone and check new Craigslist postings each evening in my RSS reader. If a better project comes along and you’re not actively engaged in a project (or if it’s clear your current matter is winding down) make certain to quickly submit your application materials. Stay in regular touch with your recruiters at each agency; I typically email an availability update each Wednesday, but if you’ve just been released from a project, make certain to update them immediately. The need to maintain a pipeline of work should be apparent; don’t trust one recruiter or agency to keep you fully utilized at all times. Build relationships with every agency active in your area and seek to move between matters with as little downtime as possible.
Third, identify opportunities for self-improvement. I like to learn new skills, so downtime is always a welcome opportunity to attend a virtual training, take an online course or maybe attend a CLE. I’ll find a comfortable place to work and drill into learning a new skill. Perhaps you’ve been putting off running some errands, deep-cleaning your apartment or searching for a new soulmate. You’ve got some free time. Take advantage of it.
Fourth, determine whether you’re eligible for unemployment or to use any banked vacation time with your agency. This is highly dependent on your individual situation, but many people needlessly abandon accrued hours at one agency when moving between projects.
Fifth, don’t neglect planned downtime. Everyone needs to take some personal time and relax. As a project-based worker, the temptation is often to try and schedule vacations and events around your work, but I’ve often found that doing so is nearly impossible. The planning timelines involved in scheduling a relaxing trip or even a really stressful wedding rarely align with those of your workflow, outside of major holidays (and, even then, often Holiday plans are blown apart by emergency, last-minute tasks). Instead, I find it easier to set aside time far in advance with clear notice to anyone who might be impacted. With limited exception, I’ve encountered very little push-back when I’ve given advance notice of my plans.
Finally, a critical component to being able to weather unexpected downtime is having at least some savings or access to credit. When projects are offering high rates and significant overtime, it can often be tempting to splurge, but it’s critical to set aside at least a month or two of expenses in the event that work dries up. I recall, as a reviewer, getting extremely close to the bottom of my emergency fund when a large number of my projects settled. I’d been working exclusively for one client for a number of months, but suddenly, with multiple matters ending, there was no more work to be done and a number of new attorneys on the market, looking for every available position. Having a small amount of savings helped ensure I paid my rent on time, kept food in the fridge, that Sallie Mae was paid and that I felt confident enough to take the train to another city for an interview.
It is incredibly easy, particularly on long-term projects, to become complacent and ignore the risk of downtime, but it can occur at any time. Never forget that the nature of our work is temporary. Having a reasonable plan for handling the unexpected can dramatically limit the stress of temporary work and enable your continued success.