Embracing the rise of freelance lawyers
It's no longer about whether firms will embrace change, but rather when and how, writes Shaun Rose
The UK freelance economy has grown 25 per cent since 2009, with one in seven of us now self-employed. The boom of flexible working is happening across all industries and as a growing number of new generation solicitors are looking for an employment offer with no-strings-attached, legal employers face a big choice, to lag behind or embrace the transformation. Firms ready to jump on to the freelance bandwagon should have a clear approach of integrating flexible resource that doesn't break the budget and enables companies to grow.
Substitute, supplement, or complement
Flexible resource isn't just a 'that'll do' but rather a 'let's add' solution and should address a clear requirement within an existing team. In general, firms can be guided by three key principles when hiring temporary talent which determine whether the role is created to substitute, supplement, or complement an existing team. The recruitment criteria for either scenario should mirror these different expectations and need to be just as rigorous if not more intense than those for a permanent role.
Firms will often require cover proactively or reactively; either maternity leave, secondment, or to cover an unexpected bout of sickness. In any instance, the freelancer who joins the firm has to be able to substitute the absent fee earner in a way that doesn't diminish, but maintains or indeed enhances the capability of the wider team.
In another scenario, a firm may experience a temporary hike in its workload and may need to supplement resource in order to maintain capacity. Here, the key consideration is to recruit someone of an equal standing, rather than bring in a junior. When it comes to complementing a firm's offering by adding extra expertise, legal employers need to make sure that the necessary skills are evident and demonstrated by the person who's joining the team.
Hire and integrate
Once a firm has recognised a gap that needs to be filled, or capacity that has to be enhanced, freelancer engagement and integration can begin. Ultimately, the aim is to make the incorporation process as smooth and efficient as possible. To do that, firms need to ensure they bring in the right person.
While it's often easy to identify skills and assess competence by looking at a lawyer's experience, firms also need to focus on the cultural triggers and subjective characteristics of candidates. It has to be clear what personality would be a good fit for the existing team, why, what, and who is being added, as well as their ability to deliver case work.
Organisational beliefs should be the backbone of the hiring process. Firms need to keep their vision and values in mind and gauge if the candidates will fit with their culture. It should also be recognised that each department within a firm could potentially have a different culture where people are motivated, incentivised, led, and managed differently.
As firms embrace the transformation of the legal world, they should adapt the company culture that integrates remote workers. Simple activities such as inviting freelancers to team and client meetings or including them in corporate newsletters or updates can help freelancers feel part of the organisation.
As the right talent can often work remotely, structured communication is the most important thing when incorporating legal freelancers within a workforce.
At a basic level, there needs to be a clear commitment and understanding not just among managing partners or division heads but across the whole existing team as to the benefits of freelance legal resource. Everyone, including the remote workers should know the end goal of their work and the role they play in achieving it.
Freelance solicitors shouldn't just be expected to do a piece of work and feed it in. Instead, remote workers need direct reports as well as other people they can look to within the team. Equally, the existing team should be actively encouraged to communicate with remote staff regularly and keep them in the loop of the case or project. This should be done not just by email but by telephone and, if appropriate, face-to-face. To integrate communication practices with remote solicitors smoothly, firms should outline specific requirements from both the existing team and freelancers.
It's no longer about whether traditional firms will embrace the change, but rather when and how. Legal employers have to forget about the once rigid legal world and accept that solicitors, just as any other professionals, want flexibility and aren't afraid to ask for it. After all, it's a win-win situation which offers lawyers better working arrangements and firms an opportunity to flex and enhance their offering with internal controls, supervision, and management.
Shaun Rose is founder managing director at Codex Consultants