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Fantastic locums – and where to find them!

21 January 19

A locum solicitor describes this peculiar creature, where to find it, and the pay and conditions on which it might be tempted to engage – plus, for those who might think of trying it, what to expect

by Mark Shepherd

What are locums like?

Even David Attenborough might wonder at that! A strange maverick creature – half-solicitor, half-adventurer, partly nocturnal and always a forager. After all, you never know where your next meal is coming from. They need to turn their heads 360° like an owl, being ever watchful. They also need a thick skin and a thin diary. To want and to be wanted: that is their mantra.

Pluses and minuses

Self-reliance is needed. No sick pay, no pension, no holidays, no security, no continuity, no paid CPD, no promotion (except self-promotion), no days out, no office socialising, no Christmas parties (well, maybe a few), no certainty, no ties… November! Also you have to pay your own practising certificate and SLCC contribution, and be prepared to travel far and wide and shoulder the resultant expenses.

So why would you do it?

It offers complete independence (except from the legal profession!), no ties, no staff problems, no long-term obligations, no worries about promotion or keeping ahead of others, no targets (except your own or those temporarily presented to and accepted by you), no “no light at the end of the tunnel”, a degree of freedom (or you can pretend it is), no panicking if the takings one month are less than the previous or if the cash flow is dancing downwards. 

No worries about losing your job… except for losing your job!

The ability to adopt a Mr Micawber-like attitude that “something will turn up” will always serve well, and may be essential. And many locums are offered a permanent gig after their skills have been evident from a locum stint.

Getting work

The Law Society of Scotland’s “Find a locum” page has some basic advice, but to find work it directs you to Lawscotjobs.

From there you can click on “Search by Contract Type” and select “Locum/Contract”. It has to be said that there are not a huge number of locum positions – but then there are not a huge number of locums!

The problem for locums, and for locum-seekers, is that very often a locum is only required at holiday times, predominantly summer holiday times. Therefore a locum could have slim pickings during much of the year but an embarrassment of opportunities between June and September. “It is what it is,” as my eldest son has prevailed upon me!

Next off is word of mouth, which is a very valuable aid to getting employment. If a locum has performed well in a particular firm, word will go around that that person is available for temporary duties. Solicitors often ask others if they know of a suitable locum, and once your name is up there you may find yourself being called upon on a regular basis.

Self-promotion can be a valuable tool, but how to do it? Again, word of mouth, and then perhaps a selective mailshot or email-shot to firms in areas within your radius of travel – perhaps a CV and a short email asking that it be held on file for any future possibilities.

A classified ad in the Journal will bring a substantial audience to your potential, and perusal of the classifieds may reveal a position which is already available.

One gripe I have with the Society is that in its “Find a Solicitor” web facility there is no provision under “Find an Individual” (perhaps in “Show advanced search options”) to search for locums. Even worse, if you are a locum, sole individual, and not part of a firm or organisation, no contact details for you will be provided whatsoever. You are just a name – which will give no information to any potential employer as to whether you are a locum or available for locum duties or may wish to be contacted.

Although it is possible to ask the Society to pass on a letter (or message?) to such a person, this will really be too much hassle for most firms with an opening. Clearly the question of privacy is a consideration, but if the locum concerned has asked the Society to include their contact details, why can that not be done? However, a specific locum search facility would be most useful.

My solution to this difficulty is to have my own organisation with its own website – www.scotslegal.co.uk. (So that’s my self-promotion done for today!)

What rate of pay?

I see everyone is sitting up and paying attention to this bit. Nothing is closer to our hearts, whether locum or hirer.

This is a very difficult subject. The locum will want as much as he/she can get (or is worth), and the hirer will want to pay no more than is necessary (or is worth it) to secure the appropriate services. I’m not going to cop out and just say it is a matter of negotiation, with each situation dealt with on its own circumstances. There are, however, many factors which do need to be taken into account, including (a) experience, (b) location, (c) nature of work, and (d) urgency of need.

(a) The more experienced an individual is, the more they will expect, and probably be entitled to. Thus an older locum who has built up considerable experience and may have previously been a partner or run their own firm is likely to command a higher figure than someone in his/her 20s.

(b) Locums will (like the general population) probably live in or around central Scotland or the main cities. Therefore a locum who receives the call from far flung places like Stornoway or Lerwick may be able to command a premium.

(c) Many locums will be residential conveyancers (it just seems to be the nature of the thing), but a locum specialising in perhaps commercial leasing or contract will most likely be able to name their own price.

(d) If it’s very urgent, the hirer will have to pay whatever is needed to secure assistance. Supply and demand.

A starting point, at one end of the spectrum, is perhaps the recommended rate of pay for second year trainees, which for 2018 is £22,000. Then we have the 2017 financial benchmarking survey which showed profits per partner to be from £69,000 to £125,000, depending on the number of partners in the firm.

Most firms’ chargeout rates for legal staff will vary from about £100 per hour for unqualified persons to more than £200 per hour for principals. Therefore the chargeout rate for a locum’s work is likely to be in the region of perhaps £160 to £180 per hour.

Obviously, some domestic conveyancing is still being charged at a modest rate, with maybe £600-£650 plus VAT and outlays not being uncommon at the lowest end of the scale for a very cheap property. However, the true value of the work is often much greater, and a sensible level of charges can usually be arrived at, reflecting the professionalism and dedicated service of Scottish solicitors.

There is, however, also the point that a locum’s pay cannot be accurately based on an average full-time employment wage, not only because there is no provision for holidays, sick pay, pension etc, but also because a locum is unlikely to have employment for a lengthy and continuous period. It can be all stops and starts. 

Taking all this information into account, it is a balance for locums between (1) not wishing to price themselves out of the market, and (2) not undervaluing their skilful services. It is not made any easier of course by most potential employers/hirers asking what remuneration the locum is seeking. This is a bit like “getting the other person to go first”, as many practitioners will be used to in negotiating claims. If the locum states a figure below what the hirer is prepared to pay, the rate is of course acceptable. If the locum states a figure which the hirer feels is too steep, the figure which the hirer is prepared to pay will be stated. However the risk element remains with the locum, since in starting off with a rate which might seem on the high side the locum risks the potential employer just walking away. All a question of balance!

So – my own current, personal view, from information gleaned only by me (since these matters are rarely discussed, even in the hallowed halls of Locum City), is that a locum would probably charge somewhere between £35 and £55 an hour based on experience, location and circumstance. I currently charge £45 per hour, on the basis that I’m pretty good but I’m not the Lord Advocate!

I do apologise if my brother and sister locums are earning more than that and I am jeopardising their future income, but perhaps I am assisting those who are not commanding even the lower rate. But I emphasise this is only one person’s opinion.

VAT?

Behave yourself! You have to register your business for VAT with HM Revenue & Customs if its VAT taxable turnover is more than £85,000 per annum. For a Scottish solicitor locum, and in the current economic climate, that is simply a case of “In your dreams!”

Professional indemnity insurance

My understanding of the position (as checked previously with the Society and also with Lockton) is that there is no requirement for locums to have their own professional indemnity insurance. They are covered under the PI insurance of the practice unit that engages them. It is also not necessary (as far as I am aware) for the engaging practice unit to intimate the engagement to Lockton.

However, it would be prudent for any locum to point this matter out to the hirer of their services, so that the hirer may be aware of the situation, and (if they feel they need to) check it with the Society and/or Lockton. If a locum is carrying out legal aid work (especially criminal legal aid work), a check with the Society should be made regarding the PI insurance position.

Written contract

I have never had a written contract with any firm I have carried out locum services for. Sometimes an email or even just a phone call is all that takes place. Perhaps something in writing may be desirable to the locum to achieve certainty of terms, but because the relationship is transient, the hirer may be reluctant to commit to anything too specific. 

I simply render an invoice at the end of the month and specify in a footnote: “Note: All locum work carried out under the professional indemnity insurance of engaging firm”. The system seems to work adequately.

Summary

You won’t get rich as a locum. Hopefully you won’t be outside Atria One with a cardboard (not plastic) cup either. It’s not a reliable job in the normal sense of the word, and you might struggle to get a large mortgage or support a family of 10. 

On the other hand you get to see the world (Broxburn, Grangemouth etc), and you’re a free spirit with no master – just the wind in your hair.

Love it or loathe it, “It is what it is”! 

Mark C Shepherd is a locum solicitor.
w: www.scotslegal.co.uk

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