Ten years of legal freelancing – are we still ‘new’ law?
By Matthew Kay
Matthew Kay and Geraldine Kelm look at the growth of legal freelancing over the past decade.
Vario began life as a hub of freelance lawyers that was established in response to client demand for more secondees, particularly for ad hoc and emergency periods of cover. We knew the demand was there, so at the beginning it was very much about attracting talent and convincing lawyers that working as a freelance consultant was a viable and attractive career path.
It’s quite amazing to think how much the world of work has changed for lawyers over the past 10 years. Of course, we were slowly moving towards more flexibility but working from home on any kind of permanent basis was pretty rare until the pandemic. This event certainly fast-tracked the attitudes around working in a different way in the legal sector. And now it’s no longer about evangelising the benefits of flexible working or working in a different way.
In our experience, this flexibility has never been the main driver behind lawyers looking to work as a freelancer. In the early days of Vario, we surveyed our lawyers and found their main motivation for working in this way was the variety of work they could do as a contractor, with flexibility coming in second. This hasn’t really changed since. Some lawyers simply find that the other responsibilities that come with being a lawyer in a private practice firm or in-house simply aren’t for them. They became a lawyer because they enjoy practising law, and becoming a contractor allows them to do this.
The profile of a contract lawyer has also changed over the past decade. When this model was first established, it was attractive to lawyers coming to the end of their career. They wanted to keep their hand in, but do less and achieve a better work-life balance. The majority were based in London and the south east. Now, legal professionals across the spectrum are considering contracting. For example, newly qualified lawyers see it as a good way to try out an in-house role and to build a healthy CV by working for a broad variety of clients. Thanks to the explosion of flexible working, these lawyers are based not just across the UK, but around the world. It’s now mainstream and seen as a sustainable career option.
The UK was one of the vanguards when it came to offering contract lawyers in this way. However, the rest of the world soon caught up. Over the past 10 years, Vario has expanded to Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Germany and, most recently, Ireland. The demand and growth in these regions has been strong, although expanding into these countries has been, at times, more challenging than expected. This is due to the differing regulations and laws related to how legal services are provided and how the consulting/freelancing model works..
It’s been interesting to tap into these global markets and see how they use the legal provision. In the UK, we’ve seen clients move away from considering freelance lawyers as a ‘stop-gap’ solution and instead, appreciating the longer-term value these types of lawyers can offer to a team. In some global markets, the need is different and more similar to the UK a few years ago – an ad hoc requirement to cover busy periods or times of staff absence.
It's been fascinating to see how the profession and the wider business world has embraced legal freelancing. And of course, it’s not just been contract lawyering which has gained traction over the last decade, but also other services to help legal teams improve efficiencies. We have evolved our offering to include managed legal services, legal project management and consulting, process and technology. This evolution has been rapid and, at times, difficult to predict – especially with changes such as the explosion of legal technology and the global pandemic shifting attitudes around flexible working to such a degree. It will be even more fascinating to try and predict what will come over the next 10 years. I don’t think the rate of change is slowing down. The concept of ‘New Law’ may not be new anymore, but it’s definitely continuing to innovate and alter the legal market, in the UK and globally.
Matthew Kay, partner and practice group head at Vario, and Geraldine Kelm, partner and head of account management, at Pinsent Masons Vario.