The Rise of the Freelance Lawyer

Posted on 11/8/2017 by Katherine Memery

Most lawyers enter the profession expecting to be office-bound forever. In recent years, however, in a bid to escape law’s working culture of long hours, relentless caseloads and presenteeism, many solicitors have begun to explore alternative ways of working. Some have even taken the plunge and joined the growing ranks of legal freelancers.

The traditional law firm is no longer the only choice for solicitors. Evolving technology, changing attitudes to the modern workplace and budget-conscious clients, have led to more and more law firms outsourcing work to consultant lawyers.

Over the last decade or so, organisations like Lawyers on Demand and Axiom, and so-called virtual law firms like Keystone and Halebury have emerged to cater to and drive this growing trend.

A number of international firms, including Allen & Overy, Freshfields and Simmons & Simmons, have also begun to operate in the freelance space and now have dedicated arms of the business that employ freelance lawyers who want more control over their caseload.

Freelancing via the contracting division of a law firm offer locums the best of both worlds; they have access to the firm’s know-how, insurance, training opportunities and client partner while enjoying the flexibility and varied caseload of a freelancer.

While the majority of locums prefer to have a few years of professional experience under their belts before they take the plunge, freelance lawyers come from all kinds of backgrounds and have varying levels of PQE.

Although legal experience is beneficial, crucially, freelancers must have the drive and discipline needed to go it alone. They need to be highly organised, resilient, agile and creative if they are to succeed away from the traditional firm.

Freelancing might sound like an ideal way of working within the law without the hassle of long commutes, office politics and monotonous caseloads, but it’s not all plain-sailing. Here we round up the benefits and challenges of working as a freelance lawyer.

Benefits for lawyers

·         Variety and quality of work

Perhaps the key motivator for legal professionals looking to freelance is the variety of quality work on offer. Instead of working with the same clients on the same kinds of cases day in, day out, consultant lawyers can cherry-pick assignments that complement their professional skills and interests.

As a result, they enjoy a much more varied caseload than they would do in-house and more opportunities for them to develop new skills. Freelancers also have greater client contact; they are able to work for big-name clients and build relationships with a wider selection of people. 

·         Career autonomy and flexibility

One of the leading reasons for lawyers pursuing the freelance route is that it allows them to work on their own terms. They can choose where and when they work to accommodate their commitments outside of the law.

The productivity of locum lawyers is measured by their outputs and the end-result, irrespective of how long it has taken and where work has been carried out, a refreshing alternative to the long-hours culture of private practice.

·         Better work-life balance

An offshoot of the flexibility freelancing offer is a better work-life balance. Working remotely at a time that suits them allows lawyers to, for the first time, take charge of their professional, personal and family life.

Freelancing is a viable option for those wanting to take a career break. It’s particularly popular amongst lawyers looking to keep their toe in the legal water while they start a family or to ease themselves back into work after maternity leave. Working flexibly allows returners to participate in a legal environment and gradually reacquaint themselves with high-quality work while also being able to spend time with their young family.

·         Freedom

Typically, freelance assignments last between 6 and 12 months. The downtime between jobs gives lawyers the freedom to pursue their passions outside of work. Whether they want to travel, set up and run a side venture, have more time to pursue their hobbies, or simply spend more quality time with their family, freelancing gives them the flexibility to do so.

Benefits for law firms

It’s not just lawyers who are seeing the value in the move towards freelancing. Law firms are beginning to embrace this new way of working because of ways in which it can benefit them.

·         Resourceful working

Implementing the services of freelance lawyers allows firms to more effectively handle work overflow and tight deadlines at short notice. Firms might either work with solicitors on a short-term one-off basis or may outsource to particular individuals over a longer period of time.

Freelancing also allows practices to reconnect with former employees who are still interested in working for them but would prefer to do so on a flexible basis.

·         Cost efficiency

Modern law firms are always on the lookout for innovative ways to meet their clients’ needs while continuing to provide the same level of quality and service. By partnering with organisations such as Law Share, firms are able to access talented legal personnel whenever they need them, often more cheaply than they would if they were to take them on full-time.

Overhead costs are also reduced because firms are not required to provide benefits such as holiday pay or paid maternity leave and less office space is required as lawyers work remotely.

·         Increased service offering

Bringing in new expertise in the form of legal freelancers allows firms to provide their clients with a broader range of legal services. Because consultant lawyers often have different skills and experience than their in-house counsel, law firms are able to increase their service offering.

Challenges for lawyers

·         Isolation

While it’s true that freelancers are free from the distractions associated with working in a traditional office environment, working alone at home or in a remote location can be isolating. Many lawyers appreciate the team spirit and office camaraderie of a firm and might struggle to adapt to working in an environment where they are disconnected from others.

·         Unpredictable income

Unfortunately, there may be times when appropriate assignments might not be available for locums. Because of this, a freelance lawyer cannot always depend on a regular monthly income.

This financial uncertainty is often a key reason why most lawyers ultimately decide to remain in private practice. While the idea of having greater control over your work-life balance might appeal, those who are more risk-averse might decide that having a regular and sustained income is a bigger priority.

·         Potential lack of career progression

Unlike lawyers working full-time in law firms or in-house, career paths for freelancers are less well defined and promotion opportunities are more ambiguous. Those hoping for a legal career that culminates in partnership might prefer to remain in private practice where progression is more clear-cut and arguably more easily attainable.

Challenges for law firms

  • Confidentiality risks

Cybercrime is an increasingly important issue within the legal sector and is equally critical when it comes to freelancing. Without sufficient security software in place, using remote workers can pose a risk in terms of confidentiality.

When firms take on locums, files and confidential client information must be sent away from the office, to a location that may not be secure. Some practices are simply not willing to risk breaching confidentiality and so prefer not to outsource.

So, is the freelance route for you?

Before committing to a freelance lifestyle it’s essential to ask yourself what your key motivations are. What are you looking to get out of your legal career and will it be possible for you to do while working in private practice?

If you have big plans to work your way through your travel bucket list or make that pipe-dream of setting up a small business a reality, you may struggle to do so while working in private practice. A career as a freelance lawyer could be a rewarding alternative and allow you to pursue both your personal and professional goals.

There will always be lawyers who value the predictable income, human relationship and continuous workflow that come with working at a traditional law firm. However, legal service delivery is changing. Going forward, it’s highly likely that more and more lawyers will choose to explore the freelance route and the flexible and varied career path it offers.

Are you looking for an exciting new legal job? Contact Realm today.

Realm Recruit is a specialist legal recruitment consultancy based in Manchester. We work across the North West, Midlands and Yorkshire, supplying law firms with talented personnel for legal roles at all levels. If you’re looking for a new challenge, we can help. Call our friendly team on 03300 245 606 or email info@realmrecruit.com

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