Have briefcase, will travel

Rather like Clark Kent's transformation into Superman, the species once known as the locum solicitor has transformed itself into the freelance solicitor.

Our super-hero is busy helping law firms provide a low-cost quality service to their clients without incurring huge overheads. And at the same time is pursuing a respectable alternative career to the wage slavery of a City firm.

Alison Smith of recruitment specialists Badenoch & Clark says: “There has been a phenomenal surge in business over the past couple of months. We have increased the total number of our temporary solicitor placings by 30 per cent in the past five weeks alone. We are also having a bumper time on the permanent side – it is strange at this time of year.”

“Temporaries are increasingly seen as the way forward. Firms tended to pare down too much when the going was tough, but you don't recruit again just because a couple of big cases have come in. What's more, taking on a temporary solicitor is a great way of minimising the risk of permanent recruitment. You know exactly what you are getting.”

Firms looking for temporary solicitors fall into two categories. There are those who want to recruit to a permanent post, but will take on a locum while they find the right person. And there are firms who will take people on a project-by-project basis, particularly in litigation.

In the past locum solicitors were seen as poorer quality than their permanent cousins. But the recessionary years helped lay to rest the notion that “any lawyer worth their salt is in full-time employment”. Even now, good solicitors are being made redundant.

If locum solicitors tended to be paid a weekly wage, freelance solicitors are billed out at an hourly rate. Badenoch & Clark needed to gain special clearance for this from the Law Society as technically the agency is the employer.

Agencies say that freelance solicitors can expect to be paid roughly the same rate as they would in a permanent position, pro rata. But taking on a temporary can be an excellent way of buying years of post-qualification experience at a bargain-basement price.

In the temporary market, it is the position that has the price tag, not the skills required. And after about five years' post-qualification, salary scales break down. “Then you get paid for what you are worth,” says one agent.

Solicitors who would think twice about taking a large pay cut for a permanent position tend to be more flexible when it comes to a temporary placing. And many solicitors are turning freelance to improve their quality of life – a varied workload and greater independence are big attractions.

The employment bonanza has mainly occurred in the banking and property sectors, as well as that old staple of the locum, litigation practice. And it is not just the smaller firms that are taking on temporary qualified staff. Clifford Chance, Denton Hall, Simmons & Simmons and Baker & McKenzie have all taken on temporary staff in recent weeks.

Says David Fraser of Baker & McKenzie: “We have used temporary solicitors in a highly selective manner in our litigation department to work on one or more major cases. It has worked well. They are free from the distractions generated in litigation practice, which allows them to focus on the job in hand, so you get someone that is dedicated one hundred per cent to the project.”

Fraser was concerned about the issue of quality but says the people they have used have been good enough to merit employing on a permanent basis.

It is not just private practice that is getting in on the act. Local government has also been a good source of openings for temporaries.

The head of conveyancing at the London Borough of Merton was taken on as a temporary. And from the authority's point of view, hiring a temporary counts as compulsory competitive tendering outsourcing.

However, not all the agencies are joining the bandwagon.

David Wolfson of recruitment consultants Chambers & Partners says: “We do occasional locum placements, but we do not receive that many requests for that type of work and we do not actively seek them out. We will do them for a firm when they desperately need someone immediately.”

One firm that is taking advantage of the upsurge in interest in temporary solicitors is the Quarry Dougall Partnership. It has recently launched a service called Special Project Lawyer, run by Nicky Rutherford-Jones, who used to head the locum service, Reliance Legal. She points to the success of the short-term market in the US as proof of what can be achieved.

Nicholas Brown, manager at ASA Law which was set up in 1983, agrees that in the last five years the market has changed considerably, with many high calibre lawyers now on the registers. The contracts last for three to six months on average and will sometimes become permanent. “It is a nice way for both parties to test the water,” says Brown.

Interest has been broad-based, coming from medium-sized and City firms, corporates and financial institutions.

At worst, the temporary market could be a vehicle for providing unscrupulous employers with cheap labour on a 'hire 'em and fire 'em' basis. But all the signs are that it is helping to kick-start the market, providing law firms with flexible and efficient source of expertise.

As one recruitment agent says: “There are a lot of excellent people out there.”