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Welcome boost for freelance lawyers

by Heat Recruitment

It could soon be possible for the public to hire a solicitor as easily as they can a cab driver or a plumber, if new proposals from Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) go ahead.

The SRA wants to make it easier for solicitors to practise as freelancers, and the proposed changes would enable solicitors to provide reserved legal services – including litigation – without being employed by a law firm or registered as sole practitioners.

They would not be able to hold client money or employ people, but would need appropriate indemnity insurance.

The SRA says: “This would simplify the current situation where there is a complex series of exemptions for solicitors who want to work in areas such as certain insurance services, law centres and doing pro bono”.

It’s part of the SRA’s current bid to modernise the solicitors’ code of conduct, and could provide a real boost to lawyers who want to work flexibly and to the public, who could potentially source individual lawyers online.

Not everyone is happy about the idea, however. The Law Society said the SRA was in danger of creating “a new Wild West”, adding: “We are gravely concerned the SRA is ploughing ahead with proposals that would see solicitors subject to entirely different regulations depending on where they practise.

“The regulator has failed to think through the implications for consumer protection nor has it proposed adequate safeguards.”

The demand for freelance lawyers has already been growing, because of businesses like Lawyers On Demand, ES Agile and Axiom, which match freelance solicitors on their books with corporate clients who need extra legal help. James Lewindon, Head of ES Agile UK, says: “Going freelance is a viable option for any lawyer, and gives them more choice, flexibility and control over their career.”

The SRA proposals – part of an updated and much-simplified handbook – would effectively make such freelancers more accessible to ordinary members of the public.

The SRA’s handbook sets out the standards it expects solicitors and law firms to meet, and the rules they should follow.

The SRA has already consulted on a first phase of changes to create a simpler code of conduct and accounts rules. The proposals about freelancers are included in a new consultation, which also covers rules about how it approves firms, and assesses the suitability of those entering the legal profession.

The new handbook is due to be a fraction of the size of the previous version – a full 300 pages shorter, at around 130 pages.

Paul Philip, SRA chief executive said: “This is a simpler handbook with a sharp focus on what matters – high professional standards and appropriate public protections.

“Pages of complex bureaucracy do not benefit anybody. Our approach rightly puts the onus on professional judgement and ethics. Most solicitors do a good job and earn the trust people place in them. But a small minority do not.

“Our enforcement policy makes clear when and how we will act if things go wrong. It is essential that both the public and the profession can have confidence that we hold solicitors to account and act in a fair way.”

The consultation period runs until 20th December, after which we will know if we really are moving towards a much more liberated environment for solicitors to operate as freelancers.

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by Dan Hazzard