13 Feb 2015

The rise of the freelance lawyer

Businesses are increasingly using freelancers as flexible resourcing gives them a competitive advantage, says Alison Bond.

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Launched in conjuncture with National Freelancers Day, recent figures have revealed that the freelance workforce has risen nearly 15 per cent  to a 40 year high of 4.6 million, with a 150 per cent  growth in the number of firms hiring freelancers. And, while freelancing is perhaps more usually associated with IT or management consultancy, it’s begun to permeate the legal profession and is quickly becoming a permanent fixture.  

A change in mind-set 

While some in the law may think there are only two possible careers routes – either in-house or private practice – our experience is that many legal professionals are now more open to freelancing as a possible career path. In addition, businesses are taking a more positive view of those who have followed a diverse and varied career.  Freelancing is now a proactive choice for those who want to march to the beat of their own drum.  

Alongside the upsurge in supply, we’re also seeing greater demand from businesses.  Certainly, Vario is set to double in size this year as we respond to client demand for more freelance lawyers. Our clients are telling us that they are increasingly using flexible resources and project-based freelancers as part of their strategic planning, as opposed to simply in response to a crisis.  What's more, they see it as a source of competitive advantage – allowing them access to a wide pool of skills on a cost effective basis. 

The skills you need

So what skills are required to thrive in this flexible, freelancing world?  First, legal freelancers need EQ as well as IQ.  We've seen a shift from businesses predominantly valuing left-brain skills, such as technical capabilities and subject expertise, to taking a more balanced approach where right-brain skills, such as adaptability, are equally in demand.  In short, since freelancers have to become rapidly effective within new environments, businesses are looking for people who not only know what to do but also have the skills actually to do it and make change happen.

At Vario, we work closely with Gill Graham, Principal Psychologist at people performance firm Cargyll, to ensure that all candidates who join our hub and become ‘Varios’ have the qualities that clients tell us they need.  From our work with Gill, we know that freelancers must be calm under pressure, emotionally resilient and able to adapt to both the people around them and the environment they’re in. They will often be required to make quick decisions and display resourcefulness in the face of unexpected situations, and therefore, agility, tenacity and courage to face obstacles are all crucial traits for any successful freelancer to demonstrate. 

Faced with a lack of job security and financial security, we also know that freelancers also have to be confident in their ability to secure their next role, and must develop strategies, such as careful financial planning and continuous marketing that will ensure they are regularly in work.  Keeping up with changes in technology as well as professional and sector / industry developments is essential, and will make the freelancer marketable whatever environment they operate in. 

Freelancers are not entrepreneurs

So what does this mean for lawyers who want to become freelancers? First of all, prospective freelancers should be clear about what they're signing-up to.  Freelancers are not usually entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs are usually fiercely independent whereas those seeking self-employment typically value the control and flexibility that’s possible through freelancing but also want to work for the benefit of the team.   Second, prospective freelancers should critically assess their own skills and personal situation to ensure they support the demands of freelancing.

One example of a successful freelancer is our Vario Megan, a 27-year-old lawyer who trained with a major international firm, dealing with construction disputes, banking, insolvency and IT litigation.  She enjoyed the role, but – like many others we’ve seen – wanted a flexible career that allowed her to balance challenging legal work with other interests close to her heart.  She secured her current assignment at an energy multinational through Vario due to a combination of her technical skills and her hands-on, commercial approach.  She balances this work with volunteering for the Samaritans and says, "Working as a freelancer enables me to give more back to society and pursue a number of different avenues that fuel my interests and feed the soul.”

It’s clear to see that the world of work has changed dramatically and that freelancing, which often gives greater control and flexibility than traditional approaches to work, is on the rise.  Not only does this reflect the needs and desires of the modern workforce but also the fact that businesses are increasingly using flexible resourcing as a way of gaining competitive advantage.  As our experience reveals, for many professionals, and especially those in the law, success will mean demonstrating a combination of emotional intelligence and the right technical skills.  

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