Transport for London’s recent decision to revoke Uber’s licence meant the gig economy was back in the headlines, and not for positive reasons. Indeed, some business’ abuse of employment rights under the guise of the gig economy has meant that for some, this term has become wedded to controversy.
But of course, the gig economy doesn’t just mean taxis and food delivery. Nor is it just a revolution impacting the world of work in the UK. Platforms like Freelancer, Fiverr and Upwork mean businesses can hire workers based anywhere in the world who write, translate or transcribe copy, for example. People from countries like Malaysia, South Africa and India are embracing this new way of working.
The legal profession has also welcomed this new way of working flexibly with the contract lawyering model. Across the world, lawyers are starting to wake up to the fact that they don’t have to do the 9-5 and can introduce more flexibility and variety into their work life.
In the UK, there are a number of contract lawyer providers, many developed by large law firms. This is the same across many jurisdictions. Indeed, Berkeley, the leading Californian law school, recognises contract lawyering as a good short or long-term option for attorneys “who are between jobs or contemplating alternatives to a full-time position.”
So contract lawyering is growing into a global trend – but does this model look the same the world over? Something that can’t be underestimated is how differences in culture impact how business is done – especially when, like freelance lawyering, it is so people-centric.
Earlier this year, we launched our contract lawyering model in Australia. To make this a success, we knew we couldn’t just launch a cookie-cutter model of our UK business – rolling out an exact mirror service offering in Australia was never an option as a more tailored and culturally-relevant service was required.
An important issue when localising legal innovations like a flexible contract hub is how lawyers work in the country in question and their social and cultural norms. For instance, contract lawyering is linked intrinsically to work/life balance. Our recent study showed that although variety of work is the biggest factor behind lawyers choosing to work flexibly (45%), improving their work life balance was also a very important reason behind their decision (42%).
In Australia and other countries, cultural perceptions around these issues can be very different and innovations like Vario must adapt when launching in different countries. According to the OECD Better Life index, Australia sits behind the UK in terms of work life balance, with 13.4% of employees working very long hours and 14.4 hours devoted to personal care and leisure – less than the OECD average of 15 hours. The legal profession in Australia, like many other countries in the world, is considered one of the most stressed. All of these cultural factors must be considered and we feel the appetite for a flexible legal working model is high.
Likewise, our model is based on perfect fit and part of this is using personality tests to ensure the right lawyer gets matched with the right client. In today’s legal market, soft skills are so important and for a lawyer parachuted into a client on a 12 month assignment, it is important they fit well and can perform from day one. We used a business psychology company to carefully revise Vario’s personality test for Australian lawyers to take when they first join Vario. Being a successful freelance lawyer in Australia and UK requires some specific personality traits such as being good under pressure, socially confident and having strong emotional intelligence alongside being a top-quality lawyer with former experience working in a leading firm.
Certainly, Varios in both the UK and Australia are relaxed, resilient and flexible; however there are some small but important differences. Our research showed that Australian lawyers are more straight-forward in their communication style, and a more relaxed, collegial-style culture pervades corporate Australia meaning hierarchy is less accepted.
Business culture is also very important to consider and how the legal innovation will fit into the market. For instance, for contract lawyering, it is important to know how work is shared between work in-house and private practice and how these relationships work in practice.
There is scope for more innovation in the market and the appetite for these new, gig economy models is huge across many global legal markets -the future looks very bright for lawyers wanting to work flexibly.