Are we really free to freelance? Ask the Agony Aunt

This week’s question for the Agony Aunt – “I’m thinking about going freelance, but is this a bad move for my career?” – sparked some great stories and insights from across the Obelisk community. Thanks to everyone for getting in touch.

It’s clear from the mailbag here in the Attic that both men and women have real concerns about how their careers could nosedive on the back of a decision to switch from full time to freelance or flexible working.

Lawyers who take the progressive and healthy step to change the shape of their lives day to day, 9 to 5 (or whatever hours they choose to work), make this decision because they want to play a more active role as a parent, they want a sabbatical or they don’t sign up to the inhumane pressures of the rat race which prevent them from spending valuable time with their family and friends. It does not mean they have thrown all ambition out the window, and they are suddenly adopting a utopian, almost anti-corporate lifestyle. A lawyer can work flexibly, and be as ambitious, as talented and as productive (if not more so) than anyone chained to their desk, losing their soul to slavish hours and workloads.

But, sadly, your answers show too many organisations across the legal sector are still ‘not getting it’, despite the commercial and human benefits of flexible working being increasingly crystal clear. For those who still struggle to see the benefits, let’s make it simple for you. Do you want your business to grow? Do you want happier, healthier, more productive people on your team? Yes? Then embrace and introduce flexible working now and make it a way of life within your corporate culture – based on a model your FD, CEO and HR Director will understand; more money, happier employees.

Look at the evidence uncovered by Vodafone. The telecommunications and mobile phone giant asked companies in ten countries around the world, including the UK, if flexible working had been a good or a bad thing for their business. The results are undeniable;

  • 80% said it has boosted productivity
  • 61% reported an increase in profits
  • 58% saw their company’s reputation enhanced

But, despite the data and the commercial reality on the ground, the answers you have sent in to the Agony Aunt this week show employers are still putting up barriers to flexibility – which is causing real concerns for individual lawyers and lost opportunities for a sector with growing pressures on profits. Here are some of your stories and insights. All are dealt with anonymously.

“When I spoke to my firm about the possibility of working flexibly – so that I could dedicate more time to my family at the right time of the day – it became clear the firm did not have a structure in place to make this happen. So instantly, any discussion about flexible working became personal, rather than professional – based on a policy and framework. As lawyers, we live and breathe contracts and agreements, yet here I was, battling for something positive for me and the firm, yet held back because we have no policy to work to.”

Consultant A, London (female)

“I’ve worked at my firm for many years now, and my colleagues and the senior team know me and my family well. So when I said I wanted to change how I worked at the firm because I wanted to take on more responsibility for bringing my children up, and therefore being at home more during traditional office hours, I thought they would completely understand my reasons for wanting to do this. But their reaction took me by complete surprise. When it came to me wanting to be more active as a parent, it was clear they thought this was an odd ambition for a male lawyer to have – and completely at odds with wanting to be successful. And when we talked about work, it was equally clear they thought that flexible working put a block on the things most people go to work for – from pay rises and promotion to intellectual challenge and a good social life. They totally failed to see how flexible working could fit in with their existing system, or do me any good at all. For them, life plans mean partner, or nothing.”  

Consultant B, Manchester (male)

“I felt like a naughty school boy again; not being trusted by the teacher. It’s incredible that people who are rightly respected for their intelligence, and who talk a lot these days about innovation, could look at a proposal from me to work flexibly and the first question they ask is ‘so why should I pay you the same amount to do less?’ We are living in a culture that has been defined for decades by hours. How we charge our clients, and how we show our dedication to the firm, has always been measured in hours. We need to break out of this system and focus on delivery and productivity. Flexible working doesn’t mean less. It means different.”

Consultant C, London (male)

So, looking at the Vodafone research, making work, work for you, your employer and your family is not a compromise. It is a human, strategic and successful way to shape careers and businesses in the 21st Century. But looking at what some lawyers are coming up against when they propose shifting to a flexible or freelance working model, it’s clear the legal sector has still not understood and embraced the real benefits it can bring to everyone.

Next week’s question; How has your career been held back by PQE turning into post qualification inequality?