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The rise and benefits of the freelance General Counsel

To be a successful lawyer traditionally required following a narrow pathway: excellent school grades, law school, admittance to the Bar and a clerkship.  Following these steps is a graduate role and gradual specialization in an area of law; slowly climbing the legal ladder to the coveted position of partner. For in-house practitioners, the blueprint is a little different. It generally involves jumping ship from private practice to corporate at the specialization stage and then beginning the grind to General Counsel (GC). 

What if the digital economy can flip that entire model on its head? As the ease and access to experienced, innovative legal practitioners has moved online, are we about to witness the rise of the freelance GC?

Although lawyers work in an industry dictated by procedures and regulations, as individuals they may not want such a black and white lifestyle. The ability to find stimulating legal work without having to don a suit each morning has widespread appeal. 

In the past year, we have witnessed a seismic shift in how we work as the ramifications of COVID-19 forced the world to move online virtually overnight. Industries that were traditionally reluctant to embrace technology in their work practices had a bitter pill to swallow as nationwide lockdowns meant adapting, and quickly. 

For the legal industry, this has been a blessing as it’s proved that lawyers don’t need to rely on printed files. Technology workflow platforms, collaborative working software, and even AI, mean lawyers can be digitally connected and therefore efficient. This shift to remote work has made it feasible for legal practitioners to freelance and it has given momentum to the notion of the freelance GC. 

What exactly is a freelance GC? In essence, it is a senior in-house lawyer who is on retainer for a business or organization, acting as GC when the company does not have the capacity to employ a full-time GC or an in-house team.

For the freelancer, this opportunity enables them to utilize their legal expertise whilst working remotely, from the individual’s location of choice. The appeal of freelancing lies in the flexibility and lifestyle it offers, allowing one to have the best of both worlds - the job and the preferred  location. McKinsey and Company report that in America, a migration from cities to regions is already in motion as remote working is becoming a norm. “The median price of a one-bedroom rental in San Francisco dropped 24.2 percent compared to a year ago, while in New York City, which had roughly 28,000 residents in every square mile at the start of 2020, 15,000 rental apartments were empty in September, the most vacancies in recorded history.” Conversely, bidding wars in suburbs and smaller cities have begun, as workers choose lifestyle and location. 

The role of a freelance GC doesn’t just serve the individual, however, it also can also reap huge benefits for an organization. If a business needs General Counsel advice but can’t hire a full-time position, using contractors is a great alternative. A freelance GC can offer the business access to a highly skilled legal practitioner on their terms. In times of expansion or accelerated growth, this is an invaluable resource as companies need further counsel on their short and long-term legal needs. 

Engaging a freelance GC can also result in faster turnover for services. As the contractor is being engaged on a fixed-term basis for a determined number of hours, they will determine clear priorities regarding scope and outcomes, which in turn allows them to be more agile and efficient. 

Although there are  benefits to be had harnessing a freelance GC, both on an individual and company level, a cultural shift is required for this role to become mainstream. Forbes reported on the steady uptake in freelancing, which has been accelerated by the pandemic, stating: “Half of Gen Z, 44% of Millennials, 30% of Gen X, and 26% of Boomers choose freelancing.” Yet despite these statistics, Forbes also notes the elephant in the room: “Freelance gigs obtained through global online job platforms often get a bad rap.” 

There needs to be a recalibration of our brains to comprehend that getting the top job may not require climbing the corporate ladder, or that there isn’t necessarily just one person for the job. Venkatesh Rao, author of The Art of The Gig, says certain generations are programmed professionally to think that senior roles need to be permanent. Unstitching this mentality will help create a workplace that serves both the company and its staff. The future of work will become less linear and it will harness technology, making it more agile, adaptable, and personalized. 

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