Freelance lawyering: what’s the point?

Are you slogging your guts out in the hope that somebody somewhere will notice and one day in the distant future you might get the nod and be promoted to partner? Are you concerned about burn out? Do you find being regularly shackled to your desk until the early hours frustrating? Do you want more client contact and greater variety? Are you bored of the office politics? Or do you simply want to combine your legal career with other interests? Then is it worth joining the growing band of freelance lawyers?

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Options for self-employed freelance (or consultant) lawyers continue to grow with so many law firms, including Addleshaw Goddard (AG Intergrate), Allen & Overy (Peerpoint), Freshfields (Continuum), Pinsent Masons (Vario) and Simmons & Simmons (Adaptive) now operating in this space. What’s more, many of these entities are no longer the preserve of alumni and regularly invite lawyers from a variety of law firm backgrounds to join their books.

Then of course there’s Axiom, the technology-enabled legal and contracting services business, and the so-called virtual law firms such as Halebury and Keystone.

Axiom says it operates slightly differently to the freelancing arms of law firms namely because its lawyers are permanent employees as opposed to self-employed consultants. Another major differentiator is that lawyers who enter into agreements with the likes of Vario or Adaptive are typically free agents and are not bound by exclusivity. That means they are able to choose assignments/placements that best suit them.

There are many clear benefits of going freelance. Henry Burkitt, a consultant with Vario, says the flexibility this model offers has enabled him to run an adventure sailing business and to work with the Jubilee Sailing Trust as the charity’s sponsorship manager. “I have no regrets going down this route. Being a lawyer doesn’t define me. My legal qualification is the next best thing to a trust fund. It enables me to pay for the things I really love to do,” he explains.

Other freelance lawyers have combined their legal careers with DJing in Ibiza and running a novelty cake business, while others have simply used the free time to travel or to spend more quality time with their families. However, according to a recent survey conducted by Vario work/life balance is not the top reason for embracing the freelance model. The most popular motivator is in fact the variety and quality of work. Other reasons included networking and the ability to build relationships with a broader mix of clients and an opportunity to learn new skills.

But it’s not all plain sailing and, as Burkitt says, there are also many drawbacks, including most significantly financial uncertainty. Freelance lawyers typically set up a private personal service company and charge the law firm contracting arms a daily rate for they days they are at work.

“From a practical perspective, you need a financial cushion so don’t spend everything you earn. Flexibility is also the key because your life as a self-employed contractor isn’t as linear as when you’re employed” he advises.

Indeed, though typical assignments last between six and 12 months it is recommended that from a budgeting perspective freelance lawyers should plan for 40 weeks of work and therefore expect to be pocketing no earnings for up to 12 weeks.

As Sarah Thompson, Adaptive manager at Simmons, explains: “The frequency of work is naturally an area that lawyers would be considering. Although our lawyers are self-employed, and not employees of the firm, we still do our best to provide new opportunities as often as possible. We agree non-exclusive arrangements to ensure they have the flexibility to choose assignments that suit, whether through Adaptive or another provider.”

“While we will do our best to provide our consultants with new opportunities as often as possible, we cannot guarantee that assignments appropriate to their expertise and requirements will always be available,” adds Thompson.

Axiom, meanwhile, claims that unlike the law firm model its lawyers are paid an annual salary, including benefits and industry standard annual holidays. However, if the lawyers choose to have time off to pursue other interests or to spend time with their families etc then their salaries and benefits are pro rated. Sara Morgan, general manager at Axiom says: “Self-determination is the key differentiator. We don’t require our lawyers to be available for work or ‘on call.’ Our lawyers can elect to take time off if they choose. Most, however, choose not to do this – our lawyers are more than 90 per cent utilised.”

Meanwhile, Burkitt also warns about the potential lack of career progression, which he says should be a major consideration for ‘career lawyers’ because unlike lawyers working in permanent roles either in private practice or inhouse where career paths are relatively well-defined promotion opportunities for locums are arguably more ambiguous.

Meanwhile, Matthew Kay, director of Vario admits that some freelance lawyers can face potential isolation. “You don’t always get treated as an employee and are therefore not necessarily a part of the gang. You’re out on your own and always on show so you have to think carefully about how you interact with your client and everyone else you come across,” cautions Kay.

As such he advises that it is important freelancers make the right choice. “It’s important to ask yourself what the drivers are. If your key motivator is purely financial, you need to bear in mind that whilst as a contractor you may in fact make more money than in private practice at a certain level, as your career progresses you’re unlikely to receive the rewards of a full equity partner in a top 20 firm.”

So what are the benefits of freelancing via law firm contracting arms? Why not simply register with the temps desk of a legal recruitment agency?

Thompson and Kay both claim the law firm model affords huge benefits to freelance lawyers, including access to knowhow, training and access to a ‘client partner’. Another huge benefit is the cost of professional indemnity insurance, which will typically be covered by the firm. Although, note that it is up to individual lawyers to ensure they have up to date practising certificates as well as continued professional development.

So is there a preferred PQE level and what are the most popular practice areas? In short, lawyers at all levels of PQE can opt to go freelance, including NQs. That said, many consultant lawyers do have some experience under their belts before taking the plunge. The popularity of practice areas varies depending on the law firm. For example, Adaptive works with a lot of financial services clients, which should hardly come as a surprise given that it is owned by Simmons.

Although the entities in question are likely to be more open-minded about candidates with less conventional CVs or those who have been made redundant lawyers should not assume this is a soft option. The selection processes are relatively rigorous with some using a combination of technical and/or competency-based interviews and personality tests. The latter are used to ensure candidates will cope with the contracting model because as set out above the culture is very different to what prevails in private practice.

So if you are an individual who likes change and aren’t afraid to try out different organisations or simply want to redress the imbalance in your working life then why not give it a go?

Husnara Begum is a career coach and outplacement specialist