Call for reinforcements

A company trying to sell a product with a naff brand name learns to change it pretty quickly. And so it was that at this year's AGM in April, the Locum Solicitors Group became the Freelance Solicitors Group.

Derek Wilkes, group chair, says: “There is a prejudice against the word 'locum'. It implies the person cannot get a full-time position, whereas the word freelance implies the person is self-employed by choice.”

Now over two years old, and with approximately 60 members, the group seeks to represent a breed of lawyer whose image could do with a facelift.

But call them what you will – freelance, locum, special project lawyer, temporary – lawyers on temporary contracts are becoming big business.

Once membership figures hit the hundred mark, the group will apply for a grant to the Law Society, with which it already enjoys good relations. It has been liaising with Law Society vice-president Robert Sayer and also making representations to its practice directorate.

Miles Kentish, group co-secretary, says: “We see our role as promoting work for solicitors in difficult times, even helping them into full-time jobs.” It has had great success in property.

One of the main preoccupations of the Freelance Solicitors Group has been its input into the task force, set up in conjunction with the Young Solicitors Group, which looks into the practice of some firms suing their (ex-)staff for the excess on insurance claims.

With a modicum of success, it is urging the adoption of a model contract which clears individual lawyers of liability and undertakes not to sue for the excess. Not surprisingly, the recruitment agencies have so far been lukewarm to the idea, believing it presents their staff in a negative light. “It is not an issue that should really arise,” says one agent. Some agencies profess to believe that adequate vetting of staff should eradicate the problem, but as Cathy Toon, task force co-chair says: “I don't see how agencies can be equipped to carry out that level of vetting. Many of these mistakes could have happened to anybody.”

Over 20 cases have so far come to light. One of the most celebrated, that of Janice Cunningham arising out of work she did for Acton solicitors Fairchild Grieg, has been settled out of court, and under the terms of the settlement, she is forbidden to discuss it.

In the meantime, lawyers are advised to take out personal insurance rather than rely on the firm's indemnity insurance.

Says Toon: “Perhaps the most worrying aspect is that I know of at least one large firm in the provinces that has put a 'can-sue' clause into its employment contracts.”

David Pipkin, president of the Institute of Legal Executives and a litigator with Davies Arnold Cooper, is also on the steering committee.

He says: “The problem is mainly an economic one. It never arose when the excess on insurance claims was lower.”

As far as he knows, no Ilex member has faced legal action over a negligence claim although he believes one was formally disciplined and had their bonus reduced.

The Freelance Solicitors Group is busy forwarding lists of its members and their specialist interests to recruitment agencies. Says Kentish: “We do not intend to compete directly with the agencies. The larger City firms, for whom the agency fee is a drop in the ocean, will probably stick with what they have tried and tested. We see ourselves more as a topping-up service. But we do aim to share the commission on successful introductions, as a way of subsiding our activities.” The group is currently funded solely by subscriptions.

The future for the group looks bright. If present employment trends continue, it will soon be able to double or even triple its membership figures without too much difficulty. The locum is dead, long live the freelance.