The Solicitors Regulation Authority last month outlined plans to allow solicitors to practice on a freelance basis. They would not be required to register as a sole practitioner or be employed by a regulated firm.
Unsurprisingly, many in the profession have thrown their hands up in horror at the idea of allowing solicitors to work unregulated and on a freelance basis. The Law Society has accused the regulator of turning the legal sector into a “wild west marketplace”.
Although some elements of the proposal are concerning, especially removal of the rules preventing solicitors establishing their own firms immediately, the legal profession is no different to any other and must keep up with development in the labour market.
Something it has not always been successful at in the past.
In 1913, the Law Society refused to allow women to sit the Law Society examinations. This resulted in the famous case of Bebb v The Law Society, where four women had to resort to arguing they were ‘persons’ within the meaning of the Solicitors Act of 1843.
It was not until 1919 when the Sex Disqualification Act was passed that women could practice law.
The move towards freelancing and flexible working signals one of the most disruptive changes in the workforce for generations. And the legal profession needs to adapt, or it may find itself bereft of talent, especially in the form of women and young people.
Are freelancers taking over the world?
According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), in 2016 there were around two million freelancers in the UK . The gender split is 59% male and 41% female, of which one in seven are working mothers, attracted by the flexible working structure integral to the freelance model.
The report states:
“These highly skilled, independent professionals are the fasting growing segment of the self-employed labour force, collectively contributing an economic output that is comparable to the entire motor sales industry. Large firms, and increasingly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are tapping into this growing pool of independent workers who are available on demand, with the specialist skills to hit the ground running – adding considerable value to the organisation and enabling them to respond to fluctuating economic conditions.”
Self-employment is the fastest growing sector in the UK (and US) economy and some predict that by 2020, almost half of us will be our own boss.
The benefits of relaxing the rules around self-employment for solicitors
Allowing solicitors to work in a similar way to barristers, attached to a chamber and sharing the costs for marketing and resources, but essentially being self-employed, could provide a multitude of benefits for clients, businesses, and solicitors themselves.
For example, law firms have long struggled to retain female talent. While women are attracted to the legal profession and account for almost half of all practising certificates, only 33% are partners. One reason for this is the long hours demanded in private practice, which is often incompatible with motherhood. And let’s not forget, many fathers now refuse to settle for never seeing their children in the week and are demanding flexible hours as well. This is likely to become more prevalent as younger people move up through the ranks; millennials have grown up with technology and see no reason why they should be tied to an office from 9.00am to 6.00pm when they can work from anywhere at any time, thanks to the internet. Study after study shows that what young people value most of all is flexibility .
Flexibility is also highly valued by businesses. Companies providing locum legal services, such as Lexoo have thrived since the 2008-crash, allowing in-house teams and SMEs to bring in legal support for a fixed-fee when needed.
The advantages that a freelance model could bring to the industry must be balanced with clear boundaries and regulations, not only to protect clients but to ensure practitioners working under such a framework are not left vulnerable to investigation due to ambiguous rules.
The SRA has already stated there will be several safeguards in place, including not allowing solicitors working on a freelance basis to hold client money.
Allowing solicitors more flexibility in how they work is an inevitable consequence of the changing face of work across the world and resistance by the Law Society will prove futile, as it was when it attempted to prevent women from entering the profession 104 years ago. What matters is the way such changes are implemented. Protection needs to be provided, not only to clients, but solicitors themselves, by way of clear boundaries, regulations, and support.
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