17 Jul 2014

The life of a freelancing lawyer

Lawyers have joined the ranks of freelancers as flexible working gains ground. Karen Schilder, a real estate lawyer with Lawyers on Demand, discusses life as a freelancer.

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With a recent report from PCG, the largest association of independent professionals in the EU , highlighting that there is now over 1.4 million freelancers in the UK, freelance lawyering is now the norm for many lawyers. Karen Schilder, a real estate lawyer based in London, discusses why she opted for this lifestyle. 

Why did you decide to become a freelance lawyer?

I worked in a prestigious City law firm for over a decade until 2012, when I made the decision to leave the ‘cut and thrust’ of the square mile in order to spend more time with my young family. I loved practicing law and relished the daily intellectual challenges I faced, so wanted to make sure that my break from full-time private practice didn’t lead this to become a thing of the past. Freelance lawyering with Lawyers On Demand (LOD) enabled me to re-connect with that environment and reacquaint myself with high quality work in a new, flexible and much more fluid way. 

Freelancing has given me career autonomy and the ability to dictate my own fate, by enabling me to self-select assignments that align with my professional skillset and with my family and personal commitments. It provides me with the intellectual stimulation of high calibre legal work, without having the rigidity and commitment of employee status. Having young children and a husband with an all-encompassing job precludes me from signing up to a ‘long hours’ culture, in which effectiveness and worth is often measured by physical presence and hours clocked in within the four walls of a centralised office.

Freelance working, often done remotely, enables my productivity to be measured by my actual output and results, irrespective of where that work is carried out. Lawyers are becoming much more forward-thinking - the fluid model of working which taps into, and fully exploits, a pool of experienced and specialised talent in an increasingly IT connected and mobile world is catching on fast.  

The best thing about freelancing is that I dictate the type of work, its volume and its location, to fit my needs, enabling me to work intensively for set periods of time whilst enjoying lulls in which to pursue other interests and commitments. It is a way of working that suits my personality, requiring, as the fundamental prerequisites, diligence, organisation, self-reliance and initiative. Essentially, you get out what you put in (as much or as little), given that you manage your own work life.

What are the challenges of making the leap to freelancing and how does it feel at first?

The obvious disadvantage is the loss of security and certainty. You are operating in an unfamiliar environment, where there is no automatic guarantee of money in your account at the end of the month.  As a freelancer, you go it alone as a legal pioneer and self-starter, which requires you to abandon all inhibitions and fears and just go for it - the more entrepreneurial zeal the better. You will need to solidify and keenly exploit existing networks and work out how to sell yourself in a crowded talent market (e.g. using LinkedIn profiles, blogs, social and networking events). You will need to embrace a whole new mindset, which may feel unfamiliar and unnatural to you at first, having potentially come from a background where you have had the security, sanctuary and certainty of a wider law firm or in-house team, but which offers huge and exciting rewards.  

Freelancing requires a high level of organisation and an ability to stay on top of the administrative burdens, which, once understood and accepted as simply being part of the new procedures, are not overly onerous or challenging. As well as making the necessary psychological adjustments, there are certain key practical requirements: most notably, ensuring speedy and reliable internet connectivity, availability through mobile devices and having a location within which to work which is conducive to high productivity and focus. As a freelancer, you are going solo, which has the potential to be incredibly rewarding and exhilarating, given that the results are so tangible and obvious to you as an individual. You are both the driver and benefactor of your own success so, if you feel that you have the vision, professional talent, aptitude and commitment, what is there not to like?

What do you have to do, and how do you have to think, differently to make freelancing work?

Freelancing suits those who are self-motivated and self-reliant, and who thrive when given the freedom to get on with the job as they see fit. My freelance assignments to date have been multi-disciplinary, large-scale portfolio transactions, which have involved systematic, structured and meticulous working under the overall umbrella of an instructing partner or senior associate.  The initial briefings from the instructing firm have been comprehensive and well thought-through, which have enabled me to work independently and remotely from home in a very effective manner.

Freelance working at home enables me to focus intensively on the job in hand in an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect and co-operation, which in my case means keeping both the instructing firm and Lawyers On Demand in the loop via emails and telephone conversations. These types of transactions involve huge amounts of documentation (in electronic form) and, accordingly, require high levels of organisation.

A freelancer needs to be able to ‘think outside the box’ and see beyond the conventional, traditional and rigid ways of working and, so, being adaptable, agile and open-minded are also important qualities. It also goes without saying that the freelancer needs to have an acute pride in the job and an attention to detail, given that success will come through repeat instruction based on the professional reputation for value, effectiveness and foresight that one builds in the market over time.  

How is it different from being an employed associate or member of an in-house team?

The key difference is the level of professional and personal autonomy. You are not dictated to, or constrained by the firm around you. You dictate the workload to fit your needs, enabling you to work intensively for set periods of time, whilst enjoying lulls in which to pursue other interests and commitments.  You are empowered to manage your own fate to a level unparalleled to an employee in private practice or in-house.

You are freed from the confines and structures of conventional businesses, and are able to ‘pick and mix’ your professional experiences depending on your personal preferences e.g. choosing from a range of opportunities to provide value to a rotating array of clients in specific circumstances. It can certainly lead to a colourful and varied diet of work and experiences, and can help to avoid the career ruts of the same work, for the same client in the same location which can befall a traditional employed associate. 

There is much more time spent working independently and away from the banter and camaraderie of the office environment, and its associated politics.  This, obviously, has both its pros and cons. 

You manage, market and sell yourself and need to be able to identify and overcome your weaknesses and to sharpen your professional know-how, skillsets and commercial awareness to make yourself stand out from the crowd. There is no-one else to blame for failure, so you need to rise to the challenge, abandon your comfort zone and boldly go where you have never gone before!

 How do you make it work, personally and professionally?

I make it work because I want it to work. Having been given this wonderful opportunity, which provides me with a fully functioning and satisfyingly integrated professional, personal and family life, it is not something that I wish to relinquish. I have a huge vested interest in making it work, given that it ticks all the boxes and enables me to live the life that I want to lead.  I am physically and emotionally present for my young children, who experience no down-side from my freelance working, given that, so far, it has been confined to remote working during school hours or in the evenings.

At the same time, I have the mental stimulation and satisfaction from being involved in high-value and high-calibre legal transactions, as an important and equally valued contributor to a multi-disciplinary team.  The professional side slots around my personal needs and the advances in IT have only served to facilitate this kind of flexible, mobile and agile working. Surely, this is just the beginning and it will only become easier and increasingly the ‘norm’ as the world of work moves away from lifetime, single-employer, salaried work in a centralised office location?

Any other advice for lawyers considering the move to freelancing?

I recommend chatting with others who have already made the leap.  Reading through the wealth of guidance and materials on the Lawyers On Demand website is a good place to start, including the Frequently Asked Questions (http://bit.ly/1iz7bZr). This covers pretty much every angle. I also advise contacting some accountancy firms who are familiar with self-employed and freelancers registered as company Directors, they can help supply standard form briefing notes and guides which explain the practical, taxation and accounting ramifications of adopting this mode of working.

 Do you see freelancing as a long term career option?

I do. The world of legal work is changing at a rapid pace and it is mutually beneficial for both law firm and freelance consultants to move away from old business models towards new ‘legal opportunities’. Once you have savoured the benefits of freelance working and adapted your mindset accordingly, it would be difficult to slot back into the more robotic, traditional ways of working. Through freelancing, I am in charge of my own career path and professional fate, and I love it. Indeed, it would be difficult to agree to have my wings clipped, having sampled the soaring benefits of personal and professional freedom.

My hope is that, as time goes by, I build up a solid and ever-increasing base of professional contacts, who will come to view me as an indispensable resource in times of transactional need and that, through this personal network, there will be a regular and reliable source of work to compensate for the theoretical insecurities and uncertainties of freelancing. Certainly, as a freelancer, I think that time is on our side as the world becomes increasingly IT connected, mobile and physically de-centralised as a result of technological advances. 

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