Working on an interim basis offers the benefit of flexibility and greater work-life balance for lawyers, writes Mardi Wilson, head of ES Agile in Hong Kong.
Stepping off the traditional career path may not seem like the sensible thing to do. However, more and more lawyers are finding that there are advantages to breaking out of the mould and taking the less obvious path, with some startling and positive developments for their CV.
For most lawyers, the typical career path is pretty clearly set out — secure a training contract in private practice, land a role as a newly qualified solicitor, get a few years of experience, then decide if the rest of your career is going to be in private practice or move across to an in-house role. Occasionally, in-house lawyers may decide to move the other way and go into private practice. However, for the most part, it’s a fairly predictable career path.
The question then is, in this ever-changing landscape of innovation and technology, is there a different way? This may be where alternative legal service providers come in.
Can a lawyer have a career in the “gig economy”?
One area that is growing rapidly in the legal sector in Asia is the gig economy, where a lawyer may choose to work on a contract or freelance basis rather than take a permanent role (also called interim, consulting, outsourcing, etc.). This is where businesses engage a lawyer for a defined, short-term period to deliver a specific service or outcome for their legal team.
“The ability to add a skilled contractor on short notice allows the in-house legal department to remain agile and to flex quickly in response to the requirements of the business it supports, without sacrificing quality,” says Alix Grice, vice-president and regional counsel for BT in AMEA. “The providers who specialise in this area have a ‘bench’ of candidates with a range of skills and experience — from individual subject matter experts (able to provide support for an unusual event such as a one-time M&A) to the ‘safe pair of hands’ (the experienced commercial lawyer with a broad range of law-firm and in-house experience who can cover for a spike in workload or extended leave periods).”
Some common career misconceptions about short-term engagements are that the work is either low level or it’s for lawyers with lots of experience stepping into roles such as interim general counsel. This is not the case. Legal consulting or contract work is just as open to lawyers at the junior and mid-level as well. And there is probably more to be gained by a lawyer at this stage in their career.
Lawyers often ask if they should specialise early in their career and then generalise, or vice versa. There is no right or wrong answer — but the consulting platform can support lawyers in doing both. Lawyers interested in getting to a certain career milestone such as partner, head of department or general counsel may find that working outside of their specialist area or sector can give them great experience and insight to help them advance. At any major crossroads in a career, a lawyer should assess their experience and any gaps they have as well as their strengths and what they really enjoy doing. This can then help inform the decision as to what the right step will be (ie, to specialise or generalise) and what options may be available to address any gaps. Sometimes consulting is the only way to build experience if opportunities are limited for secondments or different legal projects.
Why should junior and mid-level lawyers consider a career in the gig economy?
Lawyers at all levels can benefit from contract work at different stages in their career, but it’s worth saying that an ideal stage for a contracting career could be between two to six years post qualification experience. At the junior to mid-level it may be easier to move into contract work because they have sufficient legal skills, strong commerciality/ business knowledge and the flexibility to use this knowledge across sectors. Sometimes work opportunities may be dependent on what is happening in the market at the time (eg, regulatory changes, economic upturns/ downturns) or whether a client is looking for a particular skill set to address a business need.
Looking at CVs for interim lawyers is “generally no different from a permanent hire”, according to Bill Wang, executive vice-president and senior legal expert at Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (Asia). “Perhaps I valued even more the candidate’s quality of flexibility and adaptability in covering various matters in a short period of time.”
In addition, at the junior to mid-level, a private practice lawyer may be considering in-house versus private practice. If a lawyer lacks in-house experience, then contracting is likely be extremely beneficial later in their career if they make the decision to make the move permanently. The work that alternative legal service providers can offer is generally with exceptional client names that can really add value to a CV. By undertaking an in-house role while at this level, clients may be more understanding and more likely to provide on-the-job guidance to succeeding in-house. Also, if it’s not the right client fit or type of work for a particular lawyer, the contracts are for a set time frame, so you can always choose to do something different at the end of the contract without any drawbacks.
There is a lot to be said for the soft skills a lawyer will develop by working in-house and on short-term assignments. Lawyers must have the ability to adapt quickly to working in new areas, teams or sectors. They need to hit the ground running to deliver as much as they are able to in the short time of their placement — it’s essential to establish relationships quickly and be comfortable outside of your comfort zone. A key part of working in-house is how you communicate on legal matters to the wider business. They are not looking for pages of legal opinion, they are looking for guidance on how you, as a lawyer, feel the matter will impact the business as a whole, and the level of risk that may be involved in moving forward.
What’s in it for clients?
At a more experienced level, clients will expect that you have the necessary skills and aptitude to adapt to in-house culture. Clients typically look for the combination of strong in-house and private practice experience and contract lawyers with a diverse CV are more likely to increase their opportunities.
“We look for contractors that have done several other contract stints, or who have a flag in their resume that shows us that they can adapt from one environment to another, such as cycling between law-firm and in-house experience, or a move from one industry to another,” says Grice. “This means that it is more likely that the candidate is a flexible thinker and can quickly adapt to a new corporate culture.”
If a lawyer is adaptable, making the move to contracting can provide a great platform for doing more diverse and interesting work.
The reason clients look to engage contractors will vary in many different ways.
“As the incoming new general counsel, I was in the process of building up an effective legal team on a more permanent basis,” says Wang. “It was a continuing process. Meanwhile, I needed to cover any interim gaps in terms of both capacity and capability. A contract lawyer arrangement was a suitable solution as it provided the kind of coverage flexibility and immediate availability that I was looking for.”
While clients benefit from their input, it is important for an interim lawyer to understand and work with a client’s unique culture. It is not up to the contractor to revolutionise the legal processes / structure of a client.
“It is important to cultivate the team culture of the existing permanent staff,” says Wang. “I would expect the contractor to understand, and better yet, subscribe to the existing team culture; meanwhile, a fresh pair of eyes looking at the way of working would be beneficial to the existing team and I appreciate deeply what a contractor can bring to the table that can enlighten us to continuously improve the way we work.”
What role does technology play in a contract career?
If we are thinking about the way that careers may change and adapt in the future, the obvious answer is the move to remote working. Legal tech now supports work such as remote contract review, as well as the increasing development of digital or cloud-based contracts. AI is being used for the first review of contracts and then being flagged where necessary for a lawyer to review it. Clients can now use Uber-style platforms to put their work request out into the digital market place and lawyers can bid or quote for the work. While these changes and work options are not yet mainstream in Asia, experience tells us that businesses here will soon start to adopt to this way of working.
What is perhaps more immediate for a lawyer is the benefit of working in a larger number of organisations, therefore seeing more of the technology solutions being developed both in-house and in private practice to meet a wide variety of business needs. This is where a lawyer may choose to focus on assignments in a particular area such as fintech, e-commerce, digital contracts, document automation, business self-service, the list goes on. What a lawyer learns working on one placement can be added to their CV and used on another placement. This essentially is a way to fast-track their experience in a broader capacity.
“An unexpected benefit to the use of fixed term contractors is that they bring a new point of view and outside the box thinking that can result in improvements or at least reconsideration of engrained practices and less than efficient workflows,” says Grice.
Are there any drawbacks?
So, having read all of this, if you are ready to embark on a career as a consultant lawyer, there are some key things to consider.
Firstly, working on a contract basis means that there is no defined career path. The type of roles that you work on will build your experience immeasurably, but if your ultimate goal is the career ladder either in-house or in private practice, you need to decide for yourself how long is right for you to work on a contract basis. The benefit with contracting is that is doesn’t rule out permanent positions in the future, indeed contracting might be something you do at several points in your career. Secondly, you will need to identify and understand if your training and development needs are going to be met. Some alternative legal service providers offer access to training but this will obviously differ if you are on the fast track to promotion. Do find a mentor with an open mind to work with you during this time so you can get an external view on how your CV and your experience is developing to help you achieve your ultimate goals.
There are also a few other practical things you need to think about with contracting. You need to understand if the financial structure is going to work for you. Income is project dependent so make sure you assess your own financial situation and do your research on the contract market. Assignments move quickly, contractors need to be available within four weeks. While on a placement, there is usually a two to four week notice period, therefore consultants also need to be prepared if a placement finishes earlier than expected. Speak with colleagues and friends who are consultants as well as the ES Agile team and other alternative legal service providers in the market to find out more. The consulting models are all a little different in Asia and you may find it possible to work with a couple, or that one may suit you best.
The future of working in a gig economy
At the end of the day, there is the benefit of flexibility and greater work-life balance through the working model of the gig economy. Ultimately, you control your career, selecting the projects that are of interest to you and when you work. It is possible for junior lawyers to take on more challenging work sooner and increase their responsibility faster than on a traditional career path. Then, when you are not on an engagement, the choice is yours for what you do with one of the most precious resources — time.