The ‘freelance lawyer’ market is growing, especially for lawyers looking for more flexibility from rigid work conditions, and it’s a trend we see continuing at a rapid rate. This evolution has also required more traditional organisations to adapt their work structures, affording opportunities to the increasing pool of freelance lawyers, turning it into an “employees’ market”, as Michael describes it.
We get asked on a daily basis, “Should I consider freelancing?” and the answer isn’t always a resounding yes. We spoke with three freelance lawyers from Western Australia to find out why they started, what it takes, what skills are needed, and how it fairs from their own personal experience.
Chris Marshall, with 12 years’ experience in the resources sector and now owns and operates his own ILP.
Michael Bourke, who also owns and operates his own ILP, with over 20 years of legal experience, working in-house for major Oil and Gas companies.
A Regional Legal Manager, who operates her own sole practice, with 15 years working in the resources sector.
Why should I become a freelancer?
1. Lifestyle – freelancing gives you greater control over when you work and how you work. For instance, some freelancers work for three months and then take one month off to pursue a hobby or others work a six-hour day to enable them to spend more time with their family.
“I think that part of the corporate world, and many law firms, is that they expect you to do work over and beyond your normal working days and over and beyond your reasonable overtime, that to me, it sometimes begins to move more into a space that begins to be unreasonable. As a freelancer I get more control over that; I can say – well this is unreasonable and I can’t work, or I can, but I will charge you more”
2. Control/autonomy – in a world of uncertainty people crave control. Depending on the size and culture of the organisation, as an employee, lawyers have varying degrees of control over who they work with, what work they undertake, the culture or the hours they work. Freelancing on the other hand provides the lawyer total control over their work.
“It exposes me to the top end of town work and also legal professionals, getting exposure to that work is a huge benefit of freelancing”
“When you’re a freelance lawyer, you can choose to work 2 days, 3 days etc. I mean, I’m still working full-time but the biggest thing for me is that I’ve committed & contracted to work a certain number of hours and I can’t actually offer any more than that. I find in a corporate environment, you have no choice because you have to offer quite a significant amount more than your contracted hours and that was always the difficult part. I now get more control over my working life and that rolls over to give me more control in my family life”
3. As a stopgap/career progression between permanent positions, when you find yourself becoming stagnant.
“I think what happens with in-house lawyers, they reach their peak in terms of the hierarchical structure in the organisation and many organisations are running on a flat structure. Senior lawyers are looking for the next step up and that’s either going to be as the leader or head of your team or the general counsel role, but those roles are very few and far between, so the thing you need to look for is something that is challenging but how can you get there when there is no room for movement. I think if you’re feeling frustrated or bored, it’s something to really consider, because it gives you exposure to other organisations and you can also work in other sectors too”
“The work has been challenging, the company is a big corporate organisation, which I am used to, so I’m used to dealing with many layers and the usual positive and negative things that come with big corporates. And as far as the actual work, I’ve never worked in oil and gas, so being a freelancer has opened up a new skill”
“The work is challenging but the key thing is, I get satisfaction because I’ve got all these legal and commercial skills, and I see complex things in these roles that I have the skillset to solve, and I get a level of enjoyment out of that”
What risks do I need to consider?
1. Uncertainty: the flipside of control and autonomy is the uncertainty you will face as a freelancer.
“Yeah, there is flexibility but there is also time sitting at home, unoccupied when you would like to be working, so there are two sides to flexibility”
“I would like the work to be more predictable, but that begs the question ‘what can you do to make it more predictable?’, but you can’t, that’s just the nature of the model”
2. Skills: not every lawyer has the right skillset to be a legal freelancer. There are some skills that are in more demand than others. Moving between different work environments, cultures, personalities and types of work requires significant self-awareness and adaptability.
“We have a wealth of Natural Resources, we’ve got a very diverse culture, we have really good business and I think there will always be a need for freelancers; people with the right skillset to be employed in companies, hit the ground running and get the job done. It really isn’t a frontier though because you really do need to work hard to hit the ground running”
“At my last placement they actually treated me like an employee even though you’re a consultant and I think that people can see that you’re putting yourself out there, giving it a crack and that is almost a level of respect in itself and I had no idea that was going to be the case, so that was quite good”
3. Start-up cost & time: There are steps you need to follow to become a freelancer, see WA article link, which will incur time and money.
“I thought it would be challenging for me. I thought that taking out professional indemnity cover would be difficult (and keeping up with all those and the Legal Practice Board requirements) but it’s actually not difficult at all, it’s really very easy. I actually didn’t know much about that, but I phoned Law Mutual, they talk you through it and you tell them what you’re going to be earning and they do the calculations in terms of how much your cover will cost you. If you are a sole practitioner or an ILP, you may lose a percentage of your fee with a legal recruiter or with a law firm that engages with freelance lawyers, however I found that law firms take a much higher percentage as do some legal recruiters because they are ‘law firms’ therefore you aren’t required to take out the indemnity cover, so you think that you are saving on the costs of your insurance cover; however I would advise that you do your calculations properly when choosing a legal recruiter or law firm as sometimes those percentages which are deducted off your daily rate are excessive, and it may cost you less to take out your own cover. Operating as a freelance lawyer where I can take out my own insurance, it’s not hard to keep up with either because I put a reminder in my diary. All these things that I thought would be really difficult actually are not hard at all”
“It may not suit all lawyers, but it really is a very efficient way to get things done”
So, who are successful freelancers?
They tend to be senior lawyers that don’t necessarily require income stability as they have learnt to plan, budget and cost accordingly, who are comfortable with themselves and the career that they have built. They have confidence in their skills, their marketability and their ability to sell themselves to clients.
Many of them fell into freelancing as a stopgap between permanent roles only to find the control, remuneration and lifestyle too compelling to exchange for a permanent role.
What do we suggest if you decide to freelance?
That you hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Should you find yourself unemployed and unsure what to do next, we highly recommend engaging as a freelancer while you look for your next role. We suggest you undertake the process to become a freelancer while you are engaged in a permanent position so that should it become necessary you have the ability immediately.
Talk to us about your skills, your aspirations, your fears and take advantage of our expertise in the industry to see if it’s the right fit for you.
Sonia Cason is the Business Director WA of Dovetail Legal Solutions and is always open to a confidential discussion over a chai latte.