In the first of three articles on life as a freelance solicitor, we look at why you need to give it 100% to succeed.
A stereotypical image comes to mind when thinking about a ‘freelancer’. They are a contented breed of relaxed professional catching up on emails in a cool cafe, before setting off to their next appointment in an alternative guise as a yoga instructor (or something of that ilk).
But a freelance life might mean something very different indeed. On a six-month assignment with a client, you arrive at an office you do not know and which is further away than you think. Then you discover you are reporting in to someone half your age, and that no one gives a hoot about either your experience or your hard-learned opinion on the nuances of legal argument.
Or, it could be that you work from home in a makeshift office which doubles up as a broom cupboard. You are either impossibly busy, or terrified you will never get another piece of work again. And, to make matters worse, you have not been paid by someone who owes you a lot of money.
As Tim Chick, who has been freelancing as a solicitor for 15 years, puts it, you need to be able to live with permanent uncertainty: ‘You have to make it work – the relationships, the money, the IT. It’s up to you to drive all that. And it never stops: you never get to a point where you feel you have got it sorted, because then a project ends and you have to start all over again.’
If that sounds daunting, it does not seem to be putting people off. The last decade has seen nothing short of a freelance revolution in the UK employment market. There has been a 35% increase in the number of self-employed people since 2008, from around 3.25 million to 4.5 million, according to the Office for National Statistics. That may in part be due to economic necessity, of course. In the legal sector, it is thought that contract, locum or freelance lawyers could comprise as much as 10% of the total number of practising solicitors operating out of a panoply of law firm and non-law firm models.
Last November, the Solicitors Regulation Authority made it easier to be a freelancer with a change in the practising rules. Now a freelancer can set up on their own account without the need to package up the practice in an SRA-authorised firm – and advise clients directly. In addition, if the freelancer does not intend to undertake a reserved legal activity, there is no mandatory level of professional indemnity insurance cover.
On the face of it, there has never been a better time to freelance. But mind the hype; the work itself is still challenging, and perhaps even more so than for an employed solicitor. As Mary Bonsor, CEO and co-founder of F-Lex, the platform that matches law students with mini-assignments at law firms, points out: ‘When you are working on an assignment, the kind of projects that you are pulled in to will be intense. Everything is urgent; the client wants it done and they are not paying you for downtime.’
Ed Rea, who co-owns boutique practice Arbor Law, concurs: ‘As a contractor, you have to be at your best the whole time. You have to give 100%. If you don’t, the client will just find someone else. You are also sometimes seen as “just a contractor”. You won’t be given that gravitas or the benefit of the doubt of a longstanding employee, which can be difficult for senior lawyers who are used to that.’
Then, of course, there is cashflow. Marissa Jones was, until three months ago, a busy contract lawyer working on a series of assignments for multinationals. But when her most recent client offered her a full-time post, she jumped at the chance: ‘I am really pleased to be back working in-house. The financial insecurity could be tough. As a freelancer I was only paid when the client paid, and, once, I had to wait six months for a particular payment. If you have a mortgage, a situation like this can be stressful.’ (Talking of mortgages, a freelancer may well find that being self-employed makes it harder to get one in the first place, let alone to meet monthly contributions.)
If you are self-employed you are on your own; and although lawyers are pretty good at working independently (and a desire for autonomy is a common aspiration), isolation is also a potential problem. Former Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff knows this only too well as founder of Scomo, the first law practice in the UK to build its model on freelancers (way back in 1987). She says that working completely solo can give rise to ‘intolerable pressure’. That is why she believes firms such as hers, which can provide much-needed support, have been so attractive to sole practitioners and locums.
Freelancer-based firms organise socials or knowledge-sharing get-togethers, which is a huge plus for many. But not all are wholly taken by these attempts to build collegiality. As one solicitor told me: ‘That almost feels like speed-dating. I don’t get that regular and more mundane contact that fosters supportive relationships.’
For many lawyers, however, the allure of freelancing is not that it gives you the freedom to skydive on a Monday and draft an outsourcing agreement on a Tuesday, but rather the variety of work it brings. Bonsor adds: ‘Young lawyers in particular get bored with the same type of work, the same clients or the same office, and there is a restlessness there. This is a good reason to go into contract work, which is very varied. But they need to think about the full implications of being self-employed when they may just need a change of scene.’
Lawyers who are considering going freelance need to do what should come naturally: check the detail before they sign.
Tips from the Law Society on the new SRA freelance solicitor
- The new model suits solicitors with their own client following, or who have a small practice such as a freelance advocate, or providing advisory work.
- The new pathway does come with a lot of restrictions. For instance, you can’t be a company or partnership, you are effectively operating as a sole trader. Check the Law Society guidance.
- SRA-regulated freelancers can come together as chambers to share administrative costs and provide holiday and sickness cover but watch out because you can’t employ anyone directly.
- You’ll need to work out whether you do ‘reserved’ (such as litigation, court advocacy, conveyancing) or ‘unreserved’ legal activities because different rules apply.
- Although insurance rules are less onerous, you should think carefully because (a) you may be personally liable for any risk; (b) you may want to join a firm in the future and if you have little or no insurance in place, they may not want to take you because of the potentially uninsured or underinsured liabilities.
Polly Botsford is a law and current affairs writer