‘Flexible Work’ Makes Freelancing More Viable In BigLaw
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Upon graduating law school, attorneys usually face a limited choice of career paths. If they hope to work with name-brand, high-caliber clients, they can either commit to long hours at a top-tier firm with the hope of making partner or get their initial training in a BigLaw environment and then migrate to an in-house counsel position. Otherwise, they can forgo working with Fortune 500 businesses and either work at small or midsized firms, or open their own private practice servicing smaller clients.
But the BigLaw path requires a significant time commitment and a workload that isn’t ideal for attorneys who want to prioritize other aspects of their lives. Even though part-time schedules and remote work opportunities are commonplace in other industries, the legal industry as a whole hasn’t truly embraced either option for attorneys pursuing traditional BigLaw or in-house career paths.
But now, the rise of remote work capabilities and advances in technology are making flexible, freelance legal work a new, more accessible career option for attorneys.
The Stigma Surrounding Flexible Work Options
It’s not uncommon for law firms to offer at least one flexible work option like telecommuting or part-time/flex schedules. In fact, data suggests that these options are on the rise, likely because law firms are trying to keep with the times and respond to the growing trend of remote work. A survey by the Diversity and Flexibility Alliance found that 94 percent of law firms offer some kind of formalized flexibility policy — the highest reported rate since the survey began in 2014.
But here’s the catch: Attorneys don’t take advantage of flexible work options due to negative perceptions about nontraditional work routines. Nearly three-quarters of attorneys who choose to engage in part-time or flexible work policies report feeling stigmatized.
The stigma against flexible work options is evident in low use rates, especially among attorneys in higher-ranking positions. At firms with an available reduced-hours policy, 23 percent of staff attorneys take advantage of the benefit, but only 7 percent of associates and 3 percent of equity partners exercise the reduced-hours option available to them.
Flexible work options often fail to gain traction in law firms because they go against the grain of traditional law firm workplace culture. Attorneys are encouraged to work long hours, and billable hours play a role in how quickly they climb the corporate ladder. While a traditional law firm path is right for some, others realize the work-first lifestyle it often necessitates may not be right for them.
But freelance legal work offers true flexibility. Opportunities for freelancers to practice corporate law will continue to rise, especially as large companies look to legal tech solutions to help care for their routine transactional needs, like confidentiality agreements, service agreements and engagement letters. As alternative legal service providers increasingly fill these high-volume legal needs, they are creating new opportunities for attorneys to add value for corporate clients. And, because of the freelance nature of the work, attorneys who elect to pursue the alternative legal service provider route can even choose their hours, schedule and home base.
For Some Attorneys, Flexible Work Options Aren’t Really Options — They’re Necessary
In working with attorneys seeking greater flexibility in the way they practice law, we’ve noticed that there are many reasons why some attorneys require a nontraditional work arrangement. Although the reasons behind flexible work requirements are extremely varied, they are all valid. In fact, for many attorneys, a career as an alternative legal service provider offers the only way for them to continue to practice law while also managing their other priorities.
They’ve chosen to start a family. Working as an attorney at a traditional law firm doesn’t always make for the greatest flexibility. The demanding hours make it difficult to play an equal role in co-parenting. As noted above, while most firms offer some kind of flexible or part-time schedule option, studies show that many attorneys don’t feel they can take advantage without seeing their work and perception suffer. In addition to the challenges associated with the rigorous BigLaw work schedule, many parents prefer to raise their children outside of big cities in rural or suburban locations where BigLaw offices and clientele are less accessible. Therefore, some attorneys make the decision to leave their BigLaw job, losing access to working with some of the world’s leading companies.
They need to take care of themselves or a loved one. If a parent or relative is sick, a law firm attorney might require a leave of absence to care for them. The same applies if an attorney becomes ill themselves and needs to take a leave for recovery. But coming back from a lengthy leave of absence can be extremely difficult at a law firm. Ramping up billable hours, securing a seat at the table for new projects and reestablishing relationships with clients and fellow attorneys takes time. Depending on the arrangement, the attorney might also need to temporarily relocate to seek treatment for themselves or care for a loved one, creating additional challenges for reengaging at the law firm.
They choose to pursue another passion. Many of the freelance attorney candidates we’ve seen have a specific passion they want to pursue. Freelance legal work can provide a steady income while they chase that passion. We’ve worked with startup founders, children’s book authors, even a Cirque du Soleil performer — highly talented attorneys who wanted to use their professional legal experience to help support their other endeavors.
Practicing law wasn’t what they expected it would be. Most JD candidates enter law school immediately after they’ve completed their undergraduate studies. Few people in any industry know what they want from a career at 22 years old, and aspiring attorneys are no different. But a legal education is expensive and if it doesn’t work out, junior lawyers still need a way to pay off their student debts. Some attorneys don’t want to work in a law firm setting for their whole career. The option to put in several years at a firm and then switch to a freelance arrangement (which lets them choose their schedule and location) is a great way to put their education to work on their terms and still pay off their loans.
Corporate attorneys lead complex and busy lives. Freelance legal work provides superior flexibility for those who hope to also prioritize other aspects of their lives, such as growing a family or pursuing another passion. As flexible corporate legal work continues to take hold in the industry, attorneys can count on more opportunities that give them the freedom to practice law in a way that works best for them while still working with top-tier clients, and developing a specialty in high-volume, transactional legal work.