Jump or be pushed - When to consider your move into legal contracting

Written by: James Lewindon
Published on: 1 Feb 2019

Jump or be pushed - When to consider your move into legal contracting

We’d been told the company wasn’t doing that well. We’d been told that an organisational strategic review meant it was likely people would be losing their jobs. We’d been told that it was going to be across all sections of the company, and not restricted to one area.

One morning, our team director called the team (about ten of us) into a room. We were told this process was being replicated across the company, so everyone received the message at exactly the same time. Reasons were given why redundancies were needed. Then, a list of all those in the team being made redundant was read out. In the case of my team, the list had one name on it, mine.

I was told I could go home and process the news. I packed my things, wandered out of the building, stood in the street and realised I had absolutely no idea what to do next.

I was completely unprepared for being made redundant. My CV wasn’t up to date, I hadn’t looked at or thought about my skills, my experience, what the job market looked like, what agencies, headhunters or networks I should be working with, what locations I should be looking at for roles and what companies I should have been tracking that I would like to work for. In a word, I was lost. I learnt a valuable lesson, if I wanted to be in control of my career, I needed to make sure I had a plan that would prevent me from being in this position again.

That lesson is one I have consistently reinforced to anyone who has been interested in legal consulting since we started ES Agile in 2011, and it’s often the first question we are asked, “I want to move into contracting, but I’m on 3/6mth notice, so have you got a role that I could confirm before I resign?”. The answer is almost invariably ‘No’. The contract market moves rapidly, 4 week lead times are a stretch at best. If you are considering being a consultant, you need to get used to being 4 weeks away from your next role.

Although we can’t promise a role, we can say the legal consultancy market is incredibly buoyant, and with significant change ahead such as Brexit, the growth of technology and learning to adapt to customer interaction post GDPR, it’s likely to remain that way for a good few years yet.

We can also say that the legal consultancy market across the UK and Asia has never been as diverse or interesting. Roles are changing, not just black letter law anymore but strategic business advice and good legal project management are much more prevalent. There are more opportunities for remote / part time working and roles outside of London are also increasing as clients look to manage their costs.

We also know that our clients are increasingly putting stock in those who have a track record in undertaking consultancy roles. It shows that someone can ‘hit the ground running’, can adapt their style, and know how to operate in new teams, environments and ways of working with ease. You are more likely to get a role as a consultant if you have already been a consultant, than you are coming out of being in the same organisation for 5-10 years.

Many permanent roles also now want evidence that applicants have a diverse skill set, especially heading to General Counsel or senior legal counsel level. It’s no longer good enough to have specialised in a sector or an area of law. Often the only way to build that portfolio of experience is to become a consultant especially if the opportunity for secondments, or to work on different legal projects, is limited.

Further, ES Agile provides opportunities both inhouse with clients and in Eversheds Sutherland itself, which replicates how many other law firms operate that have started similar services to ES Agile since we launched. You can be a consultant who has a foot in both camps, or specialise in one. Either way, both private practice and inhouse offer routes to succeeding as a consultant legal professional.

We’ve also seen a growth in junior lawyers seeing this a career option. Looking to broaden skill sets, grow experience in a sector, and increase responsibility potentially faster than in permanent roles that have formal, structured promotion tracks. There is a growing pool of talent across the spectrum of experience who are embracing the freedom and choice consulting can offer.

We know that technology is having a significant impact on the delivery of legal services, changing how lawyers operate both inhouse and in private practice. This impact will continue, and will start affecting how teams are structured, how they work and the balance of permanent versus contract resource to deliver legal projects.

What is considered a permanent role these days? We have had consultants operating in teams that have seen permanent staff join and leave, while they have continued to work with an organisation in the midst of these changes. With uncertainty over Brexit, changes in the shape, structure and locations of businesses in the UK post Brexit, regionalisation of many legal teams out of London, and changing career path structures for lawyers, the question those in permanent roles should ask is how certain is the security of a permanent role in the coming two years.

I’d advise anyone to make sure you have your career plan in place, and that a significant part of that plan should be making sure you know what life as a legal consultant is like. Research the market, talk to consultant friends or colleagues you know. Speak to the ES Agile team. Speak to an accountant, plan what you could afford if you wanted to become a legal consultant. We can help you with all of those questions and signpost you to information that can help.

We know that legal consulting isn’t for everyone. By doing your research, you are in the position of controlling your own career, assessing the pros and cons against your current permanent role and empowering you to make that decision, not your employer.

James Lewindon (JamesLewindon@eversheds-sutherland.com)

Eversheds Sutherland

James Lewindon