Almost all lawyers who apply to become legal consultants at Obelisk Support look for some flexibility as part of their new freelancing career. Unheard of until the 2000s, flexible working is a growing trend in the legal industry whose meaning is largely open to interpretation. Here is everything freelance lawyers need to know about flexible working (a.k.a. agile working), how it works, the reality of it and how to achieve their flexible working goals.
What is flexible working in the legal industry?
As defined by the UK government, “flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.” In addition, all employees have the legal right to request flexible working – not just parents and carers. While the scope is broad, its application varies, particularly in the legal industry.
Let’s start by looking at BigLaw where flexibility for lawyers comes in many flavours, including the “office away from the office” version. In 2018, Allen & Overy piloted a 24-hour office space in South West London to improve on their flexible working offering. Designed to accommodate eight lawyers at any given time, this office (3.5 miles away from HQ) boasted amenities including showers, a cafe and a roof terrace overlooking the River Thames. Eighteen months later, Allen & Overy closed this flexible hub as it did not attract enough interest.
In 2019, most Magic Circle and City firms allow some form of flexible working, sometimes with prior partner approval, other times after a minimum amount of time in role. A recent article claimed that almost three quarters of lawyers at large firms in the U.K. now work from home at least once a month, which would be a welcome sign of changing working practices in the industry. However, is one day a month enough for you? Is that really what you want or are you looking for a different type of arrangement?
When it comes to freelance lawyering, flexible working should be about what you want but in free market dynamics, it is closer to what the client is ready to accept. While many B2C industries have already accepted flexible working as the norm, some professional services industries are still in the process of adapting and are slow to relax a long-ingrained culture of presenteeism or face-time.
What do flexible working arrangements cover for legal teams?
As it happens, many in-house legal teams are taking a progressive approach to flexible working. Take Mark Maurice-Jones, General Counsel at Nestlé UK & Ireland, who manages his legal team of 15 lawyers on a flexible working basis. “At Nestlé,” he told The Attic, “we have a policy that discusses the various elements of flexible work, whether it’s a number of working hours, a reduction of working hours, a reduction of number of days or working from outside the office. All these are part of the flexible working policy, a policy that’s updated regularly and that applies to all employees in the United Kingdom and Ireland.”
For flexible working to happen, a crucial factor needs to be in place – technology. Louisa van Eeden-Smit from LexisNexis says that as the legal market changes, different, more agile working models are on the rise, from portfolio careers to flexible working. Technology is the catalyst of most agile working practices for freelance lawyers and by necessity, freelance lawyers have been early adopters of appropriate tech tools. From the remote worker’s tech arsenal to sustainable home offices, flexible working lawyers are usually well equipped to work on secure cloud environments and manage legal tasks while maintaining communication channels open with clients.
What is the reality of flexible working hours for freelance lawyers?
So, with these opportunities beginning to emerge, can going freelance help you work more flexibly?
Whilst you will need to accommodate clients’ standard working requirements to an extent, you are not committed to them in the same way that a full-time employee is. Agreeing your preferred working practices at the start of an engagement and then sticking to them allows you to demonstrate that you are able to provide a great service, without necessarily being on-site all the time.
At the start of a working relationship, you will need to invest time getting to know your new colleagues and stakeholders. Be aware that this might necessitate some more time on-site at the beginning of a contract as you build up your new network. However, with many companies and their suppliers operating global teams, freelancers often find that meeting in person is soon replaced with conference calls and video conferences. Indeed, your preference for working outside of normal working hours, for example early in the morning or after the kids’ bedtime, may turn into an advantage – as you will be able to pick up calls and work at times that suit colleagues in Asia or the US.
Operating as a freelance legal consultant also helps you to establish a reputation as a trusted flexible professional. Pay attention to delivering high-quality work within agreed deadlines and that will be what you are known for, ahead of the fact that you don’t work in the office Monday to Friday.
Freelance lawyers: beyond work flexibility
June’s report Back to the future: Reshaping law firm culture on the future of work in the legal industry shows that a staggering 83% of workers would consider leaving a firm if it didn’t offer working from home. Law firms are beginning to change their working practices, but they need to do more to catch up with other sectors.
As far as freelance lawyers are concerned, the increased opportunity to utilise flexible working is one of the factors contributing to a healthier work/life balance, along with greater freedom to accommodate caring responsibilities and other personal commitments.
Good luck in your professional career as a freelance lawyer and if you want to learn more about flexible working at Obelisk Support, click here.