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Freelancing goes mainstream

16 February 15

Pinsent Masons' Vario hub utilises the talents of solicitors who wish to work freelance, to meet the fluctuating needs of clients' legal teams. We look at how it works, for the firm and the individuals

by Peter Nicholson

Looking to balance a legal career with other interests, work or otherwise? Do you want specific types of work, or working hours, and to be able to turn down work that doesn’t suit? Can you envisage working freelance, but with the support of a big firm’s resources?

There have always been solicitors who worked freelance, often as locums, but in these days of increasingly flexible working arrangements, many more are exploring its potential as a career choice. There is also at least one legal firm that has a whole resource network built of those who choose flexibility and variety ahead of personal security.

The firm is international practice Pinsent Masons; its “hub” of freelance lawyers goes by the name of Vario. Naturally, it is also built round particular client needs, whether providing maternity cover, backfilling a team departure, specific projects or an extra pair of hands to manage peaks in workflow – essentially, providing flexible access to resource, without a balance sheet commitment.

For a firm like Pinsents to meet this need is one way to answer the demand from in-house general counsel to provide “more for less”, that mantra of post-financial crash corporate Britain.

Finding the right fit

Simple though the concept sounds, managing it is quite a sophisticated exercise, as Geraldine Kelm, Vario’s manager in Scotland, explains. While the individual lawyers – also known as Varios – remain freelance, being self-employed and operating through vehicles such as personal services companies, they are carefully vetted before coming on to Vario’s books.

“This is essential – when a lawyer comes through our selection process and joins the Vario hub, we are giving them the Pinsent Masons’ stamp of quality and they are carrying the firm’s brand when out on assignment with our clients,” Kelm points out. “We carried out a due diligence exercise with clients when developing the Vario proposition. We sat down with in-house counsel to understand their requirements for temporary legal resource, how we could better help them manage their legal risk and what qualities they were looking for from their freelance lawyers.

“Two main themes emerged. The first, no surprise, was a demand for legal professionals with high-quality skills and experience at a top law firm or in-house equivalent. Second, and equally important, was a need to ensure that our freelance lawyers possess the right skills, behaviours and approaches to enable them to fit right in to a variety of working environments, and add value from day one.”

With around 150 Varios on its books and still recruiting, that focus on “fit” involves a measure of profiling at the selection stage. Pinsents has devised an online questionnaire that helps identify behaviours, preferences and motivations likely to make a successful Vario. “While this helps to establish whether a candidate is the right fit for us, it’s as much about giving the candidate a better understanding of whether we are the right fit for them. In our experience, fantastic lawyers will not always make fantastic freelance lawyers because it is a very different way of working; it won’t suit everyone,” Kelm observes.

She continues: “Given the many different types of Vario assignments, getting the right ‘fit’ becomes very important at the point we are placing our Varios, and myself and the rest of the Vario team have a key part to play here. As well as working closely with our Varios, we’ll speak to our clients to understand exactly what they need, what their drivers are; we’ll talk to the Pinsent Masons partners and lawyers who know and work most closely with them, and then we can fit the person to each organisation and assignment. It’s a very bespoke approach.”

All different motives

Who, then, are these people who are content, in effect, not to know where their next piece of work is coming from?

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the role of looking after the operation is getting to know the many different drivers that Varios have for making the move into freelancing,” Kelm responds. “Underlying it all is a desire to balance career and personal needs with enjoyable, satisfying and interesting legal work, which will develop their skills and enhance their CV.”

Some have many years’ experience but have been out of the profession for a time, perhaps to look after family, and want to pick up their career again, but in a way that gives them some flexibility and control over what work they do and when they do it. The right assignment will enable them to upskill again and rebuild their confidence.

Some want to balance having a career in law with other business interests, or indeed something non-business related. One Vario completed a six-month assignment with a bank in the autumn, and is taking time out from the law over the winter months to focus on his ski business, his other passion in life. Another senior in-house lawyer was looking to balance her legal career with other pursuits, including project managing the conversion of an old church into a family home.

“Many of our Varios have interests outside the law and so welcome the balance that freelancing can bring. For others, it enables them to gain a different working perspective, perhaps before making a more permanent move in-house, or simply to broaden out their experience. And for some it’s the attraction of working for themselves.”

Seniority is not an essential prerequisite for a Vario: “We have lawyers from a breadth of disciplines and at all stages, from newly qualified to experienced partner-level professionals,” Kelm claims. “At NQ level, we are talking to lawyers who are making an active decision to switch into freelancing, because they see it as a route to getting great experience on their CV at an earlier stage than they might otherwise. We’ve recently placed a couple of newly qualified Varios on assignments with key clients, which will be really good experience for them going forward.”

Pinsents itself can benefit from the resource, even if that is not its primary purpose – its teams can draw on the pool as needed to supplement their own capability.

And when on a client assignment, Varios in turn have the backup of Pinsents’ infrastructure. “They have support in terms of knowledge and online resources, as well as access to a Pinsents professional support lawyer; we also link them with the partners in the firm who work most closely with the client, so they have that contact throughout the time they are on assignment,” Kelm states. “This recognises that our Varios are placed with clients as part of the wider client relationship. It’s absolutely critical for us to make sure that they feel supported.”

Case studies

Freelancing for 10 years

One solicitor who is wholly at home with working from contract to contract is Laurence Edwards. Qualified in 1982, he had a varied career with Bank of Scotland and was in at the setting up of Sainsbury’s Bank. After redundancy and a spell trying stockbroking, he returned to the profession in 2001 and found himself having to take a series of short-term contracts as a way of getting back in. Longer spells of work followed, also with financial institutions, but after again being made redundant in 2014, he joined Vario.

“One of the good things is they are good at bringing you opportunities,” he comments, “but it’s a non-exclusive basis, so you are free if you can get opportunities from other sources to do those as well.” Currently he is working in London on a contract he obtained independently.

Edwards’ first Vario assignment was, as it happens, locum deputy registrar at the Law Society of Scotland. He got the call on the Wednesday, went in that afternoon, and started the following lunchtime. He was there three or four weeks; he knows of others with assignments of several months or even a couple of years.

How does he plan for the future? “There are challenges. I think it depends on your own personal circumstances. On the plus side, you get lots of variety of work and organisations you are working for, you experience different cultures, and I think you change your outlook mentally in how you prepare for things.

“The hardest thing is getting started. I guess it’s the story of the good years and the lean years. So you put something aside if you have a contract, because there could be a gap between contracts. I’ve always been quite fortunate; I think the longest I’ve had between contracts is two or three weeks. When I started 10 years ago, it was quite scary – you were worried where the next job would come from.”

He adds: “When you’re on a short contract, people generally don’t want you to take holidays: you come in and you’re doing a specific piece of work. You also want to maximise the amount you are earning, because you don’t know when you’re going to get your next contract and the danger is you end up not taking sufficient holidays, so it works both ways.

“It does depend on your lifestyle, you being in the right place and comfortable with the uncertainty that comes from it. People of the right sort of mindset enjoy it. I’ve certainly enjoyed it.”

Freelance got me back into work

If personal circumstances require, Varios can be very selective about which assignments they take on, as Elaine Nelson illustrates. A corporate lawyer who qualified in 2002, she took a career break to look after her three children, but when the recession intervened, she found it much harder to get back into work, beyond keeping up a couple of hours of university teaching each week.

“I wanted part-time work, which is difficult to get when you have been out of the market for a few years,” she comments. “When I got to hear of Vario, I didn’t really understand the model or whether it would work out at the other end, but I went along with the process and quickly got a part-time assignment with a local government client.”

That contract lasted eight or nine months, from August 2013 to May 2014; Nelson was asked to extend it, but opted not to because the school holidays were coming. “It’s about work-life balance,” she states. “I’m keeping up my university work meantime. I’ve been offered other jobs, but they haven’t been the right fit. There was one that looked interesting, but it involved more travelling and it wasn’t the right thing.

“There is no impact if I say no. You just make sure they know what you are looking for. They don’t give you ridiculous options – they sort of expected me to turn down the travel job, though the work would have fitted me quite well. As time goes on, I may be able to take on more, or different hours, but I’m not going to take something unless it’s the right thing.”

As for her experience as a Vario, she welcomed having Pinsent Masons’ support on her assignment. “It all worked perfectly. I was put in touch with their PSLs, and helped with other resources, and seminars. For work outside my usual field, such as procurement, it was good to have their backup. It was a good first assignment for me. Pinsent Masons helped to refresh my skills after a period away from work, and having current in-house experience on my CV increases my marketability.”

Nelson sums up: “A lot of people like certainty, and contracting is not for them. It’s a niche market, but it’s ideal for me.”

Freelancing without borders

Dual-qualified real estate lawyer Ruth Chapman chose Vario for lifestyle reasons of a different type.

Formerly with CMS Cameron McKenna in Edinburgh, Chapman became one of the first Varios in Scotland after deciding to move her career in the direction of freelancing.

Since then, she has undertaken a number of different Vario assignments. These have included working in-house with a leading UK property developer, and various spells with Pinsent Masons, providing additional resource for its property group, sometimes working from one of the firm’s offices and sometimes remotely from home.

Married in Italy, Chapman and her husband last year realised their dream of buying a house in Umbria. “We divide our time between Italy and Scotland, hence the reason consultancy works for me,” she comments. “My husband’s business is also in Scotland, but he gets to work from home as well.”

Her most recent assignment was with Pinsent Masons, based in its Glasgow and Edinburgh offices, while back in Scotland over the winter. “The flexibility of working freelance is ideal for my situation, and provides diverse work that keeps me interested. It feels like a new career, and a natural progression in my life.”

She adds: “The Vario team are great to work with and very supportive. It has been amazing to share and experience their journey from the beginning and see it grow. We have also seen a shift in people understanding how remote working can work for everyone involved, which is great. It is not a career for everyone, but it is just ideal for me and my life’s direction.” 

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