The gig economy has transformed the broader economy, with companies such as Uber and Lyft planning or executing multibillion-dollar IPOs, and it is also changing the nature of work. It’s estimated that by 2027 more than 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will be freelance.
It should come as no surprise that features of the gig economy are disrupting the way that legal services are delivered as well. Advances in technology, changing career preferences, and shifts in client perceptions of how to maximize the value of legal spending have converged to create more mobile, on-demand legal “gig” opportunities up and down the legal ecosystem.
The nature of these gigs is consistent with what have been called secondments. Traditionally, secondments involve a lawyer temporarily joining a client’s legal department for a predetermined project or period of time at a set rate. In the past, secondees worked on-site with lots of internal oversight by in-house lawyers. That’s changing — which is good news for lawyers seeking greater work-life balance and more control over their careers.
Trends Underlying the Shift to On-Demand Legal Work
A “network effect” is an economic concept that describes how certain products or services become more valuable when more people use them. For example, a fax machine was of little use until many people owned fax machines. Similarly, LinkedIn wasn’t very interesting or useful until lots of people joined the platform.
The market for mobile, on-demand legal services — modern secondments, if you will — is experiencing positive network effects. Talented lawyers who may have previously had reservations about leaving a law firm to forge a more flexible career are actively seeking new opportunities to work where they want when they want. Corporate legal departments that previously wanted their people on-site are often more interested in finding the right person for the job regardless of location.
Technology has enabled this transformation. Cloud-based software, videoconferencing and other technologies allow remotely working lawyers to plug in to a corporate legal department as if they were working down the hall despite being across the country. As technology gets even better and faster, the geographic limitations that historically served as barriers between legal talent and legal demand will continue to be knocked down.
In addition, corporations are no longer looking for a single law firm to handle all their work. This has been the case for some time, but with the growth of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs), the pace of the disaggregation of legal work has quickened. (Full disclosure: My company is a national ALSP). Corporations aren’t looking for one-size-fits-all solutions. They’re seeking the right expert for the job, regardless of where the expert calls home, who can deliver high-quality work at a price commensurate with the client’s belief about its value. ALSPs are now aggregating such expertise and making large pools of diverse secondee talent available to businesses when and where they need it.
The Future of Legal Work Is Flexible
The changes in the ways legal work is being done have created new opportunities for lawyers to explore options as virtual secondees. Indeed, for many lawyers, a legal career feels like a high-speed highway. It often feels like the only options are to put the pedal to the metal or exit (or worse, crash).
The evolving gig economy for legal services expands those options:
- It offers an “on ramp” for those looking for an entry point to an in-house career, as many corporate legal departments use secondment arrangements to evaluate secondees for full-time positions.
- It provides a “scenic overlook” for those looking to pause, evaluate, and assess where they’re at in their careers, and determine what comes next while still earning income and sharpening their skills.
- And it provides an “off ramp” for others who have reached the end of a stage in their careers but still want to stay immersed in the practice of law.
Fortunately, market forces, shifting mindsets and technological advancements have made it possible for individual lawyers to blend their passion for the practice with their passion for life outside the practice. In particular, the gig economy for legal services, as facilitated through modern secondments, offers new ways to engage in the practice of law, like these:
- Individual lawyers, who may be hesitant to leave a firm to strike out on their own, have greater access to sophisticated work through secondments with Fortune 1000 clients.
- Modern secondments allow lawyers to focus on what they do best — legal work itself — rather than client acquisition, billing and fees collection. They can have the flexibility of running their own business, without many of the associated headaches.
- In many arrangements, geography is not a limiting factor. While clients may expect some time on-site, they are more concerned with how the work is being done than where it is done.
- While enjoying the flexibility of choosing when and where to work, in many cases lawyers can still gain access to health care and other benefits through ALSPs.
The career path for lawyers has traditionally been one of two main routes — private practice or in-house counsel. Things are changing. A highly skilled workforce continues to emerge that wants to control their own workload, working environment and work-life balance. At the same time, businesses want options to complement their internal teams and external law firms. When projects arise, they want the ability to plug in the right expert for the job.
For lawyers looking to do sophisticated legal work on their own terms, events are conspiring to create more options than ever before.