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Freelance solicitors – a welcome shift for the industry?

by Heat Recruitment

With Brexit uncertainty, a shifting economy, and undoubtedly, a nation-wide skills shortage, the legal profession is beginning to change in response. With the number of contractors on the books increasing strongly across a variety of other sectors, the battle for the best talent is heating up. Millennial workers, for example, value flexibility in their workplace above a range of other benefits, and working parents often cannot invest full time hours into their careers.

So what are the proposed changes for freelancing solicitors, and could a career here soon be a more viable proposition?

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has now put forward plans to bring about the rise of the freelance solicitor in their ‘Looking to the Future’ programme… under a number of caveats. Said freelancer would “not be able to hold client money or employ people, but would need appropriate indemnity insurance”.

Freelancers would, in essence, operate under a similar framework as many barristers – a profession which is tied to specific chambers. According to the proposal, solicitors are currently able to undertake such a working strategy – albeit with a long list of agreed exemptions.

Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, stated: “Pages of complex bureaucracy do not benefit anybody … our approach rightly puts the onus on professional judgement and ethics.”

These proposals, then, provide a solid framework – allowing solicitors to operate on a freelance basis without such a weighty regulatory burden attached. The SRA frame this new proposal in light of their current regulatory capacity – their efforts to accurately represent the needs of 160,000 solicitors and 10,400 businesses.

You’d be forgiven for believing these barriers would be broken down without protest.

The Legal Ombudsman has now responded to the SRA proposal with caution – believing that these changes would dilute the “protection afforded to consumers”. In a statement, the ombudsman advised that “We envisage difficulties in understanding who has actually undertaken work for the consumer, whether this can be evidenced and whether we have powers to request evidence.”

Continuing, the ombudsman advised: “Consumers rarely appreciate the difference between a regulated and unregulated business, and choice is often driven by cost and word of mouth rather than an assessment of the protections available to them.” Truly, a valid consideration that must be addressed prior to implementation.

For staff, then, freelancing is developing into a leading theme in the national dialogue. Flexible hours is fast becoming one of the most desired benefits in a role, and with numerous workers in the UK juggling burnout, second jobs, and often childcare, it’s becoming more of a base requirement.

Many firms, including Freshfields, Simmons & Simmons and Addleshaw Goddard, already offer freelance terms for its staff – just under the banner of each respective law firm. Speaking on a career as a freelance lawyer, one specialist at Vario stated that: “Being a lawyer doesn’t define me. My legal qualification is the next best thing to a trust fund. It enables me to pay for the things I really love to do.”

The legal industry is changing, and with associates “fleeing law firms in droves”, hiring practices must change in tandem. Freelance solicitors may well be a staple of the future legal landscape – it’s time that businesses prepare for this new wave of talent.

If you’re an experienced professional, or a recent graduate taking your first steps into the world of law, then take a look at our Solicitors’ Ultimate Guide to Commercial Property or get in touch! You’ll be thrilled you did. 

by Dan Hazzard