Should law firms embrace freelance lawyers?

By Jack Newman, Sales and Marketing Manager at ProFinda

 

Is the virtual firm the new norm in legal?

Just a few years ago we used to use cash, cheque books, and sign our card transactions (and who can forget travellers’ cheques?!). Now we’re moving towards being completely cashless, with fintech companies like Monzo, Starling, and Revolut changing the way we pay for things. But what do fintech start-ups and lawyers have in common? A lot more than you might expect, if recent developments are anything to go by. Much like how fintech has bankers concerned for their futures, law is looking at similar disruption.

Thanks to the increasing pressure on pricing, with clients cutting budgets but asking for more value-added services, the attraction of hiring lawyers ‘on demand’ continues to expand. Taking lawyers off the payroll completely, helps to bridge the pricing gap that many law firms have been sweating over for years. Shifting to a flexible resourcing model slashes through a lot of the bottom line cost. In September of 2017, the Solicitors Regulation Authority signalled the ‘Uberisation of the Legal Market’ – highlighting the rise of the freelance lawyer, guided by the growth of ‘virtual firms’ such as gunnercooke.

A trend to watch

It’s this kind of ‘smart working’ that has been pinned as a trend to watch in the recent Legal IT Landscapes report – offering firms greater efficiency savings and a way of differentiating themselves from their competitors. Backing up these findings is PwC’s Law Firm Survey, which last year showed that law firms are waking up to the idea that their resources are not being used effectively.

To mitigate these inefficiencies in resourcing, organisations such as Allen & Overy (Peerpoint), BLP (Lawyers on Demand) and Hogan Lovells (Elevate) have implemented flexible resourcing models to enable them to respond to client needs in a more agile way. It does seem like the idea of an ‘Uber for lawyers’ has become a reality, and continues to be a focus point for law firms.

Challenges to overcome

There are a few different factors at play; some cultural, some to do with infrastructure and legacy systems, and others to do with the nature of legal work. In the same Legal IT Landscapes’ report mentioned earlier, although the idea of ‘smart working’ is capturing law firms’ imaginations, there is some discomfort involved on the lawyers’ parts. In the report, Eversheds Sutherland reported that they have implemented near-complete flex/hot-desking, with employees able to remote-in on a number of different devices. However, the firm did admit that getting its staff fully comfortable and engaged with the practice is still an ‘evolutionary journey’. Whilst flexible resourcing remains an attractive proposition, being able to manage it effectively is the most critical element.

The role of technology

Of course, technology has a huge role to play when any law firm looks to shift towards a fluid workforce model. Keeping track of employees and matters is difficult enough, but if several of those employees never meet face-to-face and work remotely then the task becomes even trickier. At the same time, if firms do move towards a more Uber-like style of resourcing, knowing the skills and knowledge of freelance lawyers, and being able to align the best person to the right job is a significant challenge.

But for every need, there is a piece of technology that can offer a solution. There are options available now that can help colleagues work remotely and still feel like they are part of the team (Slack, Trello, and Skype, for instance). Meanwhile, technology such as ProFinda allows for effective resourcing across an entire liquid talent pool – whether that be fully in-house, fully remote, fully freelance or a complete mix. By gaining total talent vision (the view of the skills and knowledge across all human capital domains), and incorporating an intelligent search functionality – Legal firms now have the opportunity to source subject matter experts on demand, from both internal or external talent pools.

Like it or not, change is coming

Whilst many of us still think of Legal as a slow-moving industry that is adverse to change – the reality is actually quite the opposite. The word innovation is increasingly becoming a ‘blurred term’ in the market – and whilst we must remember that innovation doesn’t necessarily translate to technology, technology will play a huge role in the ever-changing legal landscape. The legal industry is undergoing huge changes thanks to developing technologies that challenge the status quo, and the commitment from legal professionals to change – for the better. No matter where they stand, legal firms are going to have to change in order to keep up with the workforce of the future. Whether that be in terms of resourcing or automating parts of the legal process; if they are unable to differentiate themselves, they will fall behind.

Legal needs to embrace the norm

It’s also important to understand that the legal sector doesn’t exist in its own bubble. Flexible and remote working has become the norm in many other industries. It was estimated in 2017 that there were roughly 5 million contingent workers in the UK, of which around 28% were in the Professional Services sector.

Benefits for law firms and lawyers alike

Ultimately, I believe there are huge benefits to Legal firms adopting more agile methods of working; and a flexible resourcing model is one way of doing so. BLP’s Lawyers on Demand service posted 15% turnover growth in its first full-year results since merging with Australia’s AdventBalance – so the results are very tangible. Not only does it help to bridge the pricing gap for firms by reducing their overheads around employees, but it also makes for a more flexible and reasonable proposition for clients. The key differentiator between success and failure on this is the way that it is managed – and technology presents a fantastic opportunity for more effectively managing human capital across a firm or network.

About the author

Jack Newman is the Sales and Marketing Manager at ProFinda — connect with him at jack.newman[at]profinda.com and LinkedIn.