The New York Times writes about the rise of “pop-up” employers, essentially temporary organizations that are organized for a specific project and then go away. As the article notes, certain types of activities have been organized in this manner for a long time – Hollywood productions and political campaigns, for example. What’s changed recently is the exponential improvement in technology that can match people to tasks efficiently, allowing even complex organizations in many different industries to be created quickly.
I believe this approach could be employed in the provision of legal services. Currently, only large law firms can efficiently handle projects requiring the involvement of more than a few attorneys. But it’s not hard to imagine a portal that can be used to identify a team of attorneys to work on, say, an M&A transaction (senior and junior corporate people, tax, benefits, etc.). Of course, this sort of arrangement would have to be harmonized with existing rules for attorney client relationships (i.e., does the client engage the portal or each of the individual attorneys? How are conflicts handled?). As I’ve written about recently, my firm has joined a network of solo and small firms, and this sort of arrangement has the potential for being the basis for pop-up teams of attorneys.
The pop-up approach has the potential for solving some of the inherent challenges in running large law firms. One constant complaint of big firm attorneys is that their attempts to bring in business are foiled by client conflicts. With an ad hoc team, only those attorneys who do not have a conflict given their past experience would be allowed to participate. Another challenge for big firms is staffing, as it is difficult to hire just the right amount of staff to handle a firm workload that is unpredictable. With the pop-up approach, attorneys would be hired on an as-needed basis.
Of course, many attorneys (a risk-averse bunch generally) would be reluctant to give up the apparent security of a full-time law firm job for the uncertain income stream from a series of gigs. But as noted in the Times article, it’s conceivable that a portal could be structured to take on the responsibility of providing benefits, topping off the participants’ income during slow periods, etc. Governmental policy also has a role to play in making the pop-up approach workable. The Affordable Care Act has been useful in this regard, making it possible to disentangle health coverage from employment.