Jonathan Rayner assesses the benefits of routine remote working.
A15-year-qualified solicitor tells the Gazette that she would rather ‘poke sharp sticks’ in her eyes than work from home. She would be isolated at home, she explains, with no colleagues to discuss a case with or share a rant. There would be no handy IT guru, either, for when the computer screen goes blank. And anyway, home is where she goes to be at home, not at work.
Fans of working from home are equally passionate arguing the contrary case. Why waste hours each day crammed into a train with other morose commuters?
In fact, there are so many good reasons cited for working from home that it is startling that anyone still works 40 hours-plus in a traditional law firm office. Experience an improved work-life balance, some converts proclaim. Others talk about choice: work when you want, where you want. Some speak of escaping the shackles of partnerships, billable targets, key performance indicators and the firm’s gruesome Christmas parties. And anyway, others claim, email and the internet mean you are fully connected, with access to the same resources that previously only substantial law firms could afford.
Paying the mortgage is a great driver when you are working from home, they add. It concentrates the mind, as does the need to put food on the table or clothes on the children’s backs. Iron willpower does not come into it when there are heating bills on the doormat or the car’s petrol gauge is empty.
Certainly, the proponents of home working appear to be winning the argument. According to May 2014 figures from the TUC, more than 4m people now ‘regularly’ work from home. In the last 12 months, 62,000 people opted to make home their place of work. Of course, only a tiny proportion of this number is made up of lawyers, but it is a growing proportion. Increasing numbers of lawyers are opting to work from home because they are disillusioned with the partnership model of law firms.
Others are casualties of the recession, licking their wounds after being ‘let go’ and determined to avoid future disappointments (not to mention the expense of renting an office) by setting up on their own at home.
Doing so is more complicated than simply screwing a brass plate beside your front door bell. You must apply to the Solicitors Regulation Authority if you wish to become a recognised sole practitioner (SP) and cannot begin practising until you have received authorisation. However, assuming you have been practising in England and Wales for a minimum of 36 months in the last 10 years and have a clean disciplinary record your application should be straightforward.
Case study: Richard Barr
In 2008, Norfolk-based medical claims solicitor and Law Society council member Richard Barr went from being a ‘once secure partner in a law firm’ to abruptly joining the ‘burgeoning ranks’ of the unemployed.
Barr says that, at first, he felt impotent anger at redundancy, but then realised that this was an opportunity to turn his back on partners who obsessed about targets and, latterly, accused him of ‘under-performance’. He was unlikely in the depths of the recession to be shortlisted for any other job, he reasoned, and becoming a sole practitioner had little appeal (quite apart from the ruinous cost of PII). But Barr hit on an alternative in the shape of what has come to be known as a ‘virtual’ firm.
He opted to join Scott-Moncrieff & Associates (Scomo) as a self-employed consultant. Scomo provides its consultants with a case management system accessible from anywhere in the world; PII cover; guidance on meeting compliance requirements; back-office services and referrals gleaned through its website.
Barr says: ‘Scomo’s support is provided in return for 30% of your fees once they are paid. Wherever you live – Norfolk, for instance – all communications are to and from Scomo’s office in London, where incoming post is scanned and emailed to fee-earners on the same day.’
It was not easy to get started, Barr says, particularly in obtaining business finance having been made redundant and with the recession in full spate. He had to educate his local bank manager on the niceties of conditional fee arrangements, he says. He eventually persuaded a bank to lend him the money in exchange for a first charge on a freehold property.
Another challenge, he says, was to avoid bankruptcy while waiting for cases to come in. In what he describes as ‘one of the few shrewd business moves of my professional career’, he persuaded his former firm, which did not highly rate his chances of meeting targets, to sell him his entire caseload for a fraction of the value of the work in progress. That provided him with a solid client base.
He emphasises that you have to discipline yourself if you work at home. Make your home office better organised than your previous one, he urges, because you no longer have a secretary to sort out your papers and prevent you drowning under a pile of files. Upgrade your computer, printer and scanner, and install a dedicated telephone line for business calls.
‘I have been with Scomo for nearly six years and would not now do anything else,’ Barr says. ‘It is good to be entirely free of office politics. Fellow consultants are helpful – and if any of us has a problem they are only an email or a phone call away. We all tend to be older, and there are literally hundreds of years of combined experience to bring to bear. Besides, one thing we are required to do is have regular face-to-face meetings and that too helps to keep up human contact.’
Which is likely to be when the real problems start. As an SP, working from home and with no staff, you will have full responsibility for compliance, business development, answering the phone, invoicing, paying bills and all the other tasks associated with running a practice. Professional indemnity insurance (PII) for SPs can also be very costly. The Law Society’s website provides detailed advice on how to set up on your own.
One alternative to becoming an SP is to join one of the new breed of virtual – or dispersed – law firms as a self-employed consultant. Some of the considerations will be the same as for a lawyer who has negotiated flexible hours, or is simply waiting in for a John Lewis delivery. Except, there are certain benefits claimed for working remotely full time. These firms allow you to work from home, if you so choose, or from one of their serviced offices.
They take over your back-office duties, provide secretarial cover and help you obtain PII. They also put on networking events so you can meet and share ideas with other solicitors within the same virtual firm, alleviating the loneliness of working solo. However, none of this comes free. You pay the firm a commission on all fees you bill.
The Gazette talks to two virtual firms to discover what they offer solicitors determined to work from home. London-based Keystone Law, a full-service firm with 150 lawyers working from their own satellite (often home) offices or clients’ offices, states on its website that it uses ‘modern working practices and state-of-the-art technology to facilitate flexible and mobile working’.
Small firms division
Whether you choose the SP or virtual law firm route, your best place to start is the Law Society Small Firms Division. Membership is free and gives you access to expertise in marketing, business development, tax and accountancy. The division also offers you practice notes, feature articles, webinars and events tailored to your practice area.
The division’s annual conference on 9 October featured presentations crafted to the delegates’ priorities. For example Sue Bramall, managing director of Berners Marketing, spoke on the difficult topic – for many solicitors, that is – of selling your services to prospective clients. Her ‘Marketing to punch above your weight’ presentation warned against ‘woolly marketing objectives’, when what is required is a concrete ‘goal’ or ‘real objectives’. She urged delegates to ‘sit down with your accountant and put together a marketing plan’, which should include ‘a set of clear messages’.
Another speaker, Law Society strategic support consultant David Yeoward, delivered a presentation entitled ‘Making time for business development (BD)’, during which he argued that BD should be as central to a practitioner’s working life as fee charging.
He dismissed the perception among some in the profession that ‘sales are unprofessional’. He said: ‘We don’t do high-pressure, foot-in-the-door selling. We tell prospective clients that we are experts in our chosen field who have solved problems similar to the ones they now have.’ He urged firms to treat BD like continuing professional development, requiring all their lawyers to spend a certain number of hours per year engaged in it.
Managing director James Knight stresses that Keystone Law is not simply a refuge for lawyers who are out of work. ‘It amazes me how much discontent there is with the traditional partnership model,’ he says. ‘We have partners of big-name firms approach us because they are tired of management politics, for instance. They don’t want to go to another firm because that might just be out of the frying pan and into the fire. And so more of them are looking at the consultancy model and many of them have signed on with us.’
Excello Law, famously backed by BBC TV show Dragons’ Den investor James Caan, allows its consultants the ‘freedom to be lawyers’, according to the firm’s founder, solicitor George Bisnought. ‘We aim to put lawyers in control of their working lives, freeing up their time to concentrate 100% on their clients,’ he says.
Operations director Charles Vickery says that the firm takes away the start-up costs for its new consultants by helping with PII, IT, solicitor account rules and the rest. ‘We provide a plug-in-and-go set-up from day one,’ he adds.
What is the profile of lawyers Excello Law wishes to attract? ‘We have been targeting lawyers with a client following in excess of £100,000,’ Vickery replies, ‘but typically we are now being approached by people with a client caseload of £400,000 to £500,000.’
SP or self-employed consultant with a virtual firm, the opportunity to work from home and, in Richard Barr’s words (see case history above), ‘be entirely free from office politics’, is yours for the taking. You will still have to work hard, but becoming home-based with your eyes wide open certainly beats poking ‘sharp sticks’ into them.
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer