Freelancing and the Law

It’s conference season. I’m not sure who mandated September as the month of learning, trips away, hang overs and marketing swag.

This month I have been to LawTech and the ALPMA summit. Since post GFC both of those conferences have foreshadowed sweeping change across the legal landscape and dire consequences for those firms who wouldn’t heed the warnings. There has been change in that time but not at the scale predicted, not with consequences foretold and not in all areas explored.

Outsourcing was a big theme a few years back with the futurists predicting more and more jobs would head off-shore, including highly technical ones. That never really happened in law. AI is now the big job threat with machines rapidly learning how to lawyer.

While AI is an exciting and growing area, it’s still in its infancy. It won’t drastically alter the way we deliver law for some time.

Things don’t move that quickly in law. Clients haven’t agitated for the level of change we had expected. The real drivers of innovation have been the new law firms, headed up by the young and dynamic who love technology not fear it. The firms that have been able to set themselves up on technology platforms that didn’t exist some years back.

We are gradually seeing firms take advantage of the opportunities not cower at the risk. I think this is very exciting and encouraging, and there was definitely more hope than gloom at both recent conferences.

But there is one trend I think will take off. And I’m a little worried about it. Freelancing.

Consultants are nothing new to the legal industry and there are lawyers that have always worked under contract.

What’s worrying me is the impact of freelancing becoming a common model, particularly among early year lawyers, without some protections and structure.

It’s easy to see how applications like AirTasker could work with a legal slant. Firms matching freelance lawyers to clients have existed in the States for a long time and are gaining traction in Australia.

But what happens if this becomes the standard model? There is a lot of up side for law firms – reduced costs, scalability and the cache of being open-minded and flexible. But we need to think carefully about the impact on our people.

I have worked as a freelancer in the areas of legal tech consulting, virtual administration, graphic design and writing.

There were plenty of advantages. Being able to choose my own hours, spending more time with the kids, exercising creativity and being able to set my own agenda.

All the glittering things you are told about when you venture into the gig economy. But there was plenty of down side too.

During the time I free-lanced, I put nothing into superannuation. I was careful to keep my income to a level where I didn’t have to charge GST and I was cautious to put enough aside to cover payroll tax. When myself or the kids were unwell, the daycare costs remained static while my ability to be paid wavered.

I took on steady virtual administration work that was outside of my key skill set to meet the bills. It was fun and easy work but when I did it within the legal profession, I suffered damage to my professional reputation as a result. It was hard to move people’s perceptions from highly proficient administrator back to highly qualified developer and manager.

There was a lot of (unpaid) work involved in marketing myself (something that doesn’t come easily) and in the general admin that goes along with running a small business.

I went to a few conferences and courses, all paid for by myself. After a couple of years, I went back into more conventional work. For all of the above reasons, but perhaps mostly because I missed working within a team, mentoring and being mentored.

Look, clearly, I wasn’t cut out for the gig economy and perhaps I would have done better had I used the services of agency rather than going out on my own. Very experienced lawyers can be difficult to find and can charge a reasonable amount per hour to alleviate some of the above issues.

However, when we start to see lower paid roles such as graduate roles, paralegal and admin roles all move to the same kind of model, we need to put some safeguards in place:

  • Superannuation needs to be protected. Flexible working is particularly attractive to those caring for young children and women already face reduced superannuation issues.
  • The ability to continue to learn and improve skill sets needs to be protected. Lawyers will still bear the cost and the responsibility of keeping their practice certificates up to date. Quality and accessibility to learning need to be considered.
  • Mentoring structures need to be in place.
  • Career progression needs to be considered.
  • Hourly rates need to be generous and protected.
  • Providing opportunties to socialise and easy access to networking need to be considered.
  • Paths in and out of freelancing arrangements need to be thought about.

When we look at the highly disrupted journalism profession, we can see how freelancing is moving from a choice to the norm. And unfortunately, there are a dearth of safeguards for those doing the work.

Is freelancing the future of work? Perhaps – it’s certainly going to become a larger part of how we work. And is it grows, we need to think carefully about how to ensure our people remain protected.

This article explains the issues in more detail – The Real Future of Work

They all warn about automation and worry that robots could replace humans in the workplace. But there’s actually not much evidence that the future of work is going to be jobless. Instead, it’s likely to look like a new labor market in which millions of Americans have lost their job security and most of the benefits that accompanied work in the 20th century, with nothing to replace them.


3 thoughts on “Freelancing and the Law

  1. Vanessa says:

    I hear you on the reputation thing. Jobs using my skills are rare – I get and know that. Most people take other jobs between ideal ones. I took a permanent but irrelevant job for financial security. And yet, when it comes time to apply for skilled jobs, people decide to look down on you for having had to pay the bills. I’m facing this right now and it’s really hard to manage.

    I remember years ago reading a business article where a business owner was SO EXCITED about the prospect of people being freelance or contract, because then when “the staff” stuffed up or the business changed their minds, then it was on the contractors own time and at the contractors own expense and not at the company’s cost. They clearly saw freelancers/contractors as a fixed rate, per-job casual, not as business owners.

    Granted, I think this person had some staffing issues and was thinking that contracting was a solution to a problem that actually wouldn’t work… but I wonder how many others think like that?

    It won’t be a cheap solution, because people will have to work into their rates the cost of insurances, professional development and all of that.
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