The future is bright, the future is free(lance). Or is it?

Wind back the clock a decade or more and the very concept of the legal sector being populated by independent and interim lawyers and paralegals was an alien one. Today, however, all signs suggest that this is not only fast-becoming a reality, it may soon become the norm for many of us.

While the legal sector has continued to enjoy stead growth over the last few years, firms remain cost-conscious and the need to operate as efficiently as possible is as true today as it ever has been.

As such, firms are increasingly comfortable with utilising the services of external, independent consultants for short-term contacts to support their existing in-house teams.

But the increased use of consultants is not just down to the business wanting to streamline its operations – it is also a reflection of the changing nature of the way in which people are choosing to work as individuals.

The media is currently awash with stories of how the legal sector will be affected by the growth of the so-called ‘gig’ economy, and for more on that you can see our article in The Lawyer Monthly (page 57).

For the purposes of this article, the focus is on the shift among many lawyers and paralegals away from the traditional career model to one that is either more flexible or combines a number of often-diverse roles. It is sometime referred to as ‘portfolio working’.

Described by Forbes as one that creates a career consisting of ‘multiple identities’ whereby each individual is free to create the career that they want, portfolio working has gained in popularity since the recession.

Indeed, many leading organisations already have portfolio careerists as part of their senior and executive staff on their teams – think the Bank of England and Amazon.

Could a portfolio/consultant career work for you?

In his book, 10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career, Dr Barrie Hopson argued that portfolio or consultant careers are best suited to those who “believe they are largely in control of their own destiny.”

In other words, if you are looking for flexibility and greater variety in your work with the freedom to cherry pick the contracts you work on while pursuing other interests – often in an entirely unrelated field –then this career may be ideal for you.

Is there demand for portfolio and consultancy workers?

Simply put, yes there is. The legal sector has been doing it for years and with at least 1 in 5 of us expected to be ‘gig workers’ by 2020, the dependence on this form of external support will only grow.

As the number of newly created permanent positions across the board rises at its current pace, there is a continual shortfall in certain business areas for those with very specific skills.

This means that consultants who have the right skills and experiences will be invaluable commodities who will always be in demand because they can quickly and easily come in and plug the gap that currently exists.

What are the benefits?

Let’s start with the obvious – salary. Because consultants typically charge hourly or daily rates, they can often earn roughly the same money as their permanent counterparts but working fewer hours.

Occupational stress levels have also been shown to be lower for consultants than for those employed on the company’s pay roll. Furthermore, once self-employed consultants often report being more productive in their role than when they were a permanent employee.

This also coincides with them also having higher levels of motivation and job satisfaction, with 84% of consultants claiming to be more satisfied in their working lives than they previously were in their ‘proper’ job, according to an RSA survey (2014).

Then there is an improved work-life balance. You have the freedom to choose when, where and who you work for and you can pretty much wave goodbye to those long nights spent in the office preparing for a case the next day.

Are there any downsides?

Where there are ups there are also some downs, too. There is FOMO (the fear of missing out), whereby some consultants who work for a regular client can feel excluded from the team because they are not a permanent employee.

Then there is the fact that sometimes contracts come in marked ‘Mega urgent’ – either the contract had been passed to another consultant who didn’t quite meet the brief, or the law firm has had an urgent request and needs you to pull out all the stops at short notice.

 

It is a misconception to think that the role of a consultant legal practitioner is the reserve of those in the twilight years of their career. Analysts argue that millennials are particularly suited to such a career because it is well-documented that they seek greater flexibility and all-round variety in their work.

Providing you have the self-discipline, creativity and the willingness to undertake a series of often short-term engagements, a life as a consultant or portfolio’ist could be right for you.

Have you been thinking about what role is right for you? We’re always in hand to offer advice on getting the most from your career.