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‘Employment revolution’ signals rise of freelance lawyers

Paper says firms will do less hiring as industry embraces temporary work
|Written By Yamri Taddese

An “employment revolution” has arrived in the legal industry that will mean the rise of the freelance lawyer, an Ottawa industry analyst says in a new paper on the changing world of legal work.

‘When you’re out on your own and you are responsible to bring in enough work to keep a roof over your head, then that’s a good thing,’ says Jordan Furlong.

Jordan Furlong, principal at consulting firm Edge International, says a look into the crystal ball suggests law firms will be smaller and hire fewer full-time lawyers as the legal industry catches on to the widespread phenomenon of temporary and freelance work.

“There is no secret or magic to how all this will come about,” Furlong’s report says.

“The same disruptive forces that have driven outsourcing, automation, and flex work in every other industry will gradually, quietly enter the legal market and transform it. Agility will become as commonplace a labour concept in law as in many other industries.”

Instead of sitting in lofty office spaces, lawyers will use temporary desks at law firms when they’re not working remotely, according to Furlong.

“Firms will be increasingly decentralized, distributed, and diffuse entities that assign tasks not to the highest available biller in the office, but to the most appropriate and best aligned performer, regardless of location,” the report suggests.

It’s all a result of employers reassessing their labour needs and employees seeking more control over where and when they do their work, Furlong tells Law Times.

The “most obvious symptom” of the employment revolution in the legal industry is the decline in full-time jobs for lawyer, he adds.

“Law firms are reducing their count of lawyers, fewer associates are hired, fewer articling positions are offered, and some firms are even looking to rid themselves of equity partners,” says Furlong.

Although some of those changes aren’t always sensible, “agile work” makes sense for employers as well as workers, according to Furlong. “For a worker, flexibility, agility, and customization of your career is a benefit.” Unlike baby boomers, the new generation of workers isn’t willing to compromise other aspects of life for work, he notes.

As with most radical changes, the employment revolution could be positive or negative, he suggests. “The wrong way is toward exploitation [of workers] and the right way is towards a partnership among law firms, lawyers, and clients that says, ‘How can we maximize value across the board treating everybody fairly in a context of a very different legal market?’”

Smart law firms will steer clear of practices that exploit workers, he suggests, adding that a simple Google search of the phrase “unpaid internship” lists the names of companies that have earned a bad reputation for taking advantage of people.

British-based company Lawyers on Demand, which provides law firms with freelance lawyers whenever they need them, commissioned and sponsored Furlong’s paper. When Lawyers on Demand started its work in 2007, the idea of a freelance lawyer was a new one, says co-founder Simon Harper, who spoke to Law Times from London, England. Now Lawyers on Demand has a team of more than 100 freelance lawyers available to work on-site or remotely for law firms as needed.

“It felt a little bit like a maverick idea,” says Harper of his experience starting the company seven years ago. “It’s now in the mainstream and that’s what’s reflected in the report.”

In Canada, Cognition LLP’s approach includes a team of lawyers working as independent contractors who provide in-house legal services on a temporary basis with compensation tied to the work completed and brought it. “We call ourselves a dispersed law firm,” says founder Joe Milstone. “We’re not a virtual law firm because we have an office; it’s just that most of the lawyers usually don’t come there. They generally work from their own offices, home offices or directly on-site with clients.”

As the employment revolution slowly takes over the legal industry, Furlong’s paper calls for entrepreneurship by lawyers who will need to be “head-turningly great at something highly useful” to their clients.

Working on a temporary basis will mean lawyers will have to generate business for themselves, says Furlong. Part of that legal entrepreneurship, he notes, will involve the creation of hyphenated lawyer titles such as lawyer-technologist, lawyer-educator, and lawyer-analyst. But over time, Furlong predicts the hyphens will disappear as a new definition of what it means to be a lawyer starts to include a mix of skill sets.

In a way, working temporarily or on a freelance basis might sound like sole practice, Furlong’s paper notes. “But the larger point is that in this new legal environment, we are all solos, whether we actually operate a sole practice or not: we are all independent professionals capable of forging our own paths in any direction we like. Whether you are a project lawyer, a contract lawyer, an in-house lawyer or a technical lawyer, you will need the instincts and sensibilities of a bold entrepreneur.”

Although freelance and temporary arrangements often carry negative connotations, it’s possible to make it work, he adds.

“When you’re out on your own and you are responsible to bring in enough work to keep a roof over your head, then that’s a good thing. It’s a terrific thing,” says Furlong.

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