Let’s face it: the majority of law graduates around the world, including myself once upon a time, start out with aspirations of becoming a partner at one of the world’s best law firms. However, over the last decade or so, such ambitions have dwindled in the legal market, particularly amongst millennials who now occupy the majority of jobs within the legal profession. Career goals and priorities have changed, and in 2019, more than ever young lawyers are considering alternative ways of practising law—including as freelance lawyers.
In a recent survey conducted by Above the Law and Major, Lindsey & Africa, only 40% of millennial lawyers still saw partnership as their long-term career goal and 66% of all respondents agreed that law firm partnership is less desirable than it was a generation ago. With work-life balance the top priority for millennial lawyers, and a staggering 75% of the individuals responding to the survey saying that they would swap a portion of their compensation for more time off or a flexible work schedule, lawyers are discovering they can find that balance and flexibility as freelancers.
What does it mean to be a freelance lawyer?
A freelance lawyer is an independent contractor providing legal services to a law firm or in-house legal team, assisting with overflow work and various projects, particularly if they possess a very specific skill-set. Freelancers work from contract to contract, giving them the luxury of concentrating their time and energy on one project at a time.
Progression is still just as important when freelancing; however, it is measured in many ways: up-skilling in new legal areas, working for a variety of in-house or private practice organisations, gaining increased responsibility when managing high calibre legal projects and increasing their day rate — and the freelance market is certainly financially lucrative.
Their hours are also more predictable as a conversation has usually been had upfront about expectations with their client. Definitive end dates result in breaks between assignments at times; however, many freelance lawyers enjoy these breaks as stress-free vacation time before getting back into an intense working period or they use this time to pursue other interests.
One mid-level lawyer who decided to take the plunge into freelancing now consults for a major bank and he said, ‘I became a freelancer because I wanted flexibility in terms of hours and because I have interests outside of work. I don’t like the politics involved in permanent jobs, and I want to be able to dictate money and hours a bit more.’
Overall, freelancing allows lawyers to take more time off and have flexible work schedules and variety in work, whilst being paid attractive day rates — all motives that lead to the better work-life balance so many people crave.
What work exists?
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the so-called ‘gig economy’ has developed drastically — a term used to describe a general workforce environment in which short-term engagements and temporary assignments are commonplace. Although gaining income from short-term tasks is not a new concept, the idea of making it a career path in the legal profession is.
For some sectors, particularly financial services, it is now common for over 50% of open positions to be contract positions, covering projects, maternity covers or workload inefficiencies. Lawyers of all backgrounds, from banking and finance to corporate and commercial, have an abundance of opportunities to take on freelance work. There is really a never ending list of areas to work in, but the real beauty of it is that a freelance lawyer can gain more wide ranging experience than some permanent lawyers.
Another freelance lawyer said, ‘Contracting provides a flexible way to pursue and build an alternative legal career. In fact, it pushes you outside of your comfort zone. You are constantly working with new people across different environments and industries. I can take time off in between projects to pursue travel and explore other interests outside of law that I would not have been able to pursue had I pursued a traditional legal career.’
Freelance assignments also vary. Some part-time assignments are available, which is useful for lawyers who are, perhaps, an entrepreneur and looking to set up their business. Some organizations allow for work from home one or two days a week, especially with desk space becoming increasingly sparse.
Whilst there will always be the possibility of breaks between contracts, the majority of the bulge bracket banks and smaller financial institutions adopt flexible working models that means there will be no shortage of contract positions out there. Normally, contract lawyers are put on one project, but they can move onto different projects internally, especially within the big banks, once they have finished a particular assignment. One banking and finance freelance lawyer explained that he ‘always believed [he] would be able to get a new contract once [his] existing one finished,’ and this has a lot to do with how the major financial institutions now operate.
Should you freelance?
‘My advice would be to do it — good hours, good flexibility. But make sure you have another side interest as it will make freelancing more worthwhile and fulfilling,’ said another contractor.
Freelancing is certainly not for everyone, especially if you are pursing the conventional legal career path of becoming a law firm partner or head of legal for a leading in-house organisation. But for those whose interests have been piqued by the idea of contracting, familiarise yourself with the market by speaking to interim specialists: alternative legal service providers, law firm consultancies, innovative legal search firms. All of the above can be a gateway into the interim market. Reach out to them as they can consult you on a move and introduce you to interesting and well-paid assignments.