As you pick up the legal press and read how the “new normal” for legal will be a 60/40 split office/home, you reach for your bowl of Cheerio’s (other cereals are available) and think “how can I free myself from the shackles of traditional law?”
This is entirely possible, and we are great advocates of ripping off the corporate tie, dumping your pending workload on your equity partner’s desk, as you kiss goodbye to the receptionist who’s saved your bacon on so many occasions, and skip off into the socially distanced lift making your decent into the world of working on your own terms.
However! We also recognise that this is a little bit fairy tale, as are so many of the stories you hear from those that have already made the giant leap of faith and claim “it’s the best thing I ever done”!
In this latest SoapBox, we take a closer look at why people might want to go it alone in the legal sector, what challenges they might face and what they truly look to gain from making such a bold move.
First off, we know this is a topical and popular subject at the moment for two reasons. C-19 has forced upon many firms the need to allow their staff a great deal more flexibility in their working arrangements, with the vast majority of employees experiencing regular working from home for the first time. A good proportion of those employees have realised that they can work more efficiently and more comfortably by making use of technology that, let’s face it, has been around for yonks!
This new, exciting, if not slightly strange experience has been enough to wake that hibernating entrepreneurial spirit that sleeps in so many of us.
Secondly, despite the hard work, loyalty and dedication of so many employees over the past six months (and beyond), a great number of talented individuals are likely to face redundancies over the months ahead. Many of those that are forced to leave traditional law practices will have been contemplating a move to independence for a long time, and this may well be the catalyst / push / arse-kicking they’ve needed to make the transition!
Why not just find another firm to go to?
Before we delve into the pros and cons of going it alone, it’s worth taking a moment to consider some of the nuances associated with traditional law practices and why there may be some disgruntlement amongst those that are propping them up.
Everything that is wrong with legal services can almost be summed up in one sentence – time recording in six-minute intervals! Solicitors don’t want to do it and clients definitely don’t want to hear about it. Unfortunately, this is still common practice in large traditional legal firms as they find it difficult to transition away from a business model created hundreds of years ago.
A knock on from this is an inability to offer employees a great deal of flexibility, and the pressure to be sat at your desk recording ‘billable hours’ is often significant, even when the Equity Partner stands up at the annual away day and says the firm is “all about a quality work / life balance”!
An age-old corporate structure with a glass ceiling…
Let’s face it, the partnership model that so many traditional firms have adopted really works in favour of only a few…Partners! And there are only so many seats at that table so a common frustration amongst talented solicitors can be an inability to progress their career to the dizzy heights that they have long aspired to.
Linked to the previous issue of billable hours, this model can also drive a culture of greed amongst those leading the organisation, or at the very least a bias towards ensuring there is a return on their own personal investment rather than the overall success of the organisation.
A lack of belief in the purpose
There are many more issues that we probably don’t have time to cover here but overall these can lead to a lack of belief in the firm’s purpose and a disgruntled workforce whose drive has been sapped from them over time. The corporate ladder often comes with several rungs missing and even if you’re not interested in getting to the next level, the environment created at some firms can make for a pretty miserable experience.
Clearly this isn’t true of all firms but there are certainly some common themes amongst them so now that we’ve got that off our chests, let’s try and give a balanced view of the alternative.
The alternative – Pros
Ability to manage your own time and work on your own terms
The flexibility you can build into your working day is possibly one of the biggest attractions. Being able to roll out of bed and into the office, or to arrange work around your family commitments and not family around your work is a huge appeal.
The sky is the limit on potential earnings
Depending on how ambitious you are, there’s no cap on what you could earn. No pay brackets and no having to justify an annual salary increase.
You’re not accountable to anyone (apart from yourself and your significant other/s!)
We have to be careful with this one as sometimes we do need others to hold us to account if we’re going to succeed at something. However, this is more about not having someone peering over your shoulder every five minutes or counting the number of toilet breaks you’re taking!
You get to choose your clients
Options may well be limited to begin with as you build up your profile and your network of new and existing clients expands, but after some time you will get to know the clients who you enjoy working with and the choice will be yours to decide what to take on and what to politely decline!
Exposure to different areas of law and to different aspects of business
The freedom to explore different areas of law will be yours. You may choose to focus solely on your area of specialism but when an opportunity comes to explore your long-lost passion for Equine Law, the decision will be yours to do so.
Whether you decide to work on your own, in partnership with someone, or as a wider group, opportunities to develop and improve your business acumen will be rife.
Little or no commuting
If you like commuting, then well done to you. Most of us don’t. And the beauty of working for yourself is you can work where the hell you like (most of the time). Not having to sit in rush hour traffic or be stood on a cramped train smelling someone’s armpit for at least an hour a day will do wonders for your mental and physical well-being, and will also make you even more productive.
The alternative – Cons
Lack of Benefits
Holiday and sick pay will be a thing of the past. Every day you don’t work, you don’t get paid and you’ll have to put in place your own health insurance and pension arrangements.
Sporadic Work and irregular income
Finding steady work is a real con of freelancing. Projects can begin and then get shelved. Clients may end a contract early or you may finish a project and find it difficult to find more work.
When you’re a freelancer, you’re running a business. You’re in charge of business development, getting clients, managing your clients, invoicing, and paying taxes. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to familiarise yourself with every aspect of running a business, which in some instances can be a steep learning curve.
Cash Flow Issues
One of the biggest killers of businesses, especially new ones. While freelancers can set their own fees to meet their income (and clients’) needs, they are also responsible for collecting payment and without a robust system in place it’s very easy to get caught out with expenses exceeding income.
Another common downfall to being a freelancer is that you will ultimately be isolated from a team or company. Unless you have people close to you to work with, more often than not, you will work alone. (For some though, this is more of a blessing in disguise!)
And what about the competition?
One huge consideration is competition. This isn’t technically a con as competition is cool! It’s healthy and it’s what keeps us sharp. But if you think it’s easy swimming in shark infested waters with an open wound then think again! Let’s not forget that the legal services market is highly competitive and you’re going up against big firms with big marketing budgets and big existing client bases. Not to mention those smaller outfits, and an army of consultant freelancers just like you.
So, what would we recommend?!
The pros and cons definitely need to be weighed up on an individual basis as everyone has a different risk profile and people value different things.
There are ways to mitigate some of the risks. Joining the books of an established consultancy is one way to do that. However, think carefully about the type of service you might want to provide, not just where you want to provide the service from. Being a consultant opens up a tremendous opportunity for you to change the way that you deliver legal services, and it’s this that has huge benefits for you and your clients.
If you’re interested in going it alone, or even experiencing some of the positives without so many of the negatives, then get in touch as there’s a good chance we might be able to help.