Ep 006 – The rise of contract lawyering: making it work for both lawyers and law firms

Katherine Thomas
Free Range Lawyers


Show Notes

In this episode, Rob Patterson of Parkins Lane and Paul Evans of Toro Digital are joined by Katherine Thomas, CEO of Free Range Lawyers.

We discuss:

  • What is contract lawyering and how Free Range Lawyers is matching the supply (lawyer) and demand (law firm) markets. 
  • External factors that have given rise to contract lawyering:
    • Technological changes/advancements
    • Changing attitudes to work/life
    • Increase buyer choice and the need to find more efficient/creative ways to work
    • Firms reducing their resource cost base by employing contract lawyers to match demand/peak periods
    • Environment, health and well-being 
  • Key psychographic factors and the screening process to ensure a contract lawyer is fit for remote working.
  • How to operate as a team when you have remote/contract lawyers and the most effective ways to onboard/induct a contract lawyer.
  • The responsibilities of being an independent contractor.
  • How Free Range Lawyers creates a sense of belonging with a ‘remote’ community.


Connect with Katherine:  

On LinkedIn

Free Range Lawyers website

Email: katherine@freerangelawyers.com


Paul: Today we are chatting with Katherine Thomas, one half of the team who is behind founding Free Range Lawyers. Prior to starting Free Range Lawyers earlier this year, Katherine spent about 20 years working in the business of law at Wragge and Co, and Pinsent Masons in the UK. While she was at Pinsent Masons, she co-founded Vario, Pinsent Masons’ freelancer lawyer community. She is now the CEO of Free Range Lawyers. Welcome to the show, Katherine.

Robert: Thanks Paul. Thanks Rob.

Robert: So Katherine, I thought we could kick off today just getting a little bit of an understanding of your business model.

Katherine: Yeah, so I mean contract lawyering is not a new concept. It’s now pretty well established, and obviously Vario, the organization, I founded back in 2013 was certainly one of the first law firm led services to do this. So contract lawyering is not a new concept, but it’s still very much about lawyers physically coming into the office to fill a role. And in the work that I’ve been doing speaking since I’ve been in Australia for the last 4 years or so, I’ve become increasingly aware of a gap in the market, A) to help law firms and B) to help smaller – medium size law firms access that contract lawyer talent. And that’s on the demand side.

On the supply side, there’s also a gap in the market. I know from my experience with working with contract lawyers that there are a whole host of people who either can’t come into the CBD don’t want to come into the CBD, the way that their life works doesn’t suit an in-office assignment. And so Free Range Lawyers, what we’re doing is, we’re essentially matching those two markets. So on the supply side, lawyers who are working remotely and on the demand side specifically targeted at lawyers, and law firms, and particularly in that SME space.

Robert: So Katherine, what do you think are the external factors that have given rise to this new way of working, occurring? Are there certain things that have occurred in the marketplace that makes this more doable than maybe it was 10 years ago?

Katherine: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll start perhaps with the more obvious side of things which is on the supply side for the way that lawyers are working. I think you would’ve had to have been living under a rock for the last 10 years, you know, if you haven’t seen a real shift in attitude towards work and workplace culture. So there’s a far greater emphasis now on working in a way that fits around life, a bit better than perhaps we all did 15, 20 years ago. There are also huge technological changes that are really recommending remote working. I remember going into my first video conference about 20 years ago or so, and that was in the offices of KPMG back in the UK, and I thought it was amazing, but the delay on the speech was such that it was really difficult to get a decent conversation going.

We all know now and we’re using that technology at this precise moment in time that there are, there’s a whole swath of really cheap if not free mechanisms for communicating really effectively when you’re not in the same room. So the technology has really advanced, people’s attitudes towards their life and their career has really changed on the supply side. And so what we’re seeing is, increasingly, lawyers are less concerned about finding that job for life, and are more interested in getting a whole variety of experience and also having what they feel is greater control over their work. And that’s really led to the rise in contract lawyering. I think on the demand side with the law firms there have been, you know, similar seismic shifts really. So we all know that the power of buyers has increased, the amount of choice that they have available to them has increased, and that has put pressure on law firms to deliver their work more efficiently and more creatively.

And using contract lawyers is one of the ways in which they can do that. So really looking at their resource cost base and what really smart law firms are doing is saying, we need a cull of employed lawyers who form the culture of the firm, a format collective memory, but we don’t necessarily need to just have a lot of our work done by employed lawyers. And actually our demand is variable. So why don’t we match that variable demand with variable supply, of people that we are very carefully vetted, that we trust, that we’ve got to know who can do work, as and when is needed to meet those peaks.

And then I think the last thing I’d say that applies to both that supply and demand market, are much broader macro environmental factors that are really recommending this way of working, particularly remote working. We’re all becoming much more acutely aware of the impact that we’re having on the environment. Commuting, you know, heating and lighting and cooling large offices is not a good thing for the environment. And we’re also much more aware of our own well-being and actually enabling people to work in a way that supports their physical and mental health. Again, it’s becoming increasingly important, both to the individual lawyers, but also to the law firm, to be able to demonstrate that they’re supportive of their people working in that way.

Paul: Yeah. And the capitalist in me also thinks that it’s a cheaper way of operating a law firm in some senses, where you might not need quite as much office space, and you don’t have those overheads that you would if you were employing them directl

Katherine: 100%. Particularly when I was working in the UK, when you looked at the total cost of having a lawyer in an office in an expensive London location, it was really eye watering, and actually salary, which we all focus on, was a drop in the ocean. So those overheads are really significant, when you insist on somebody being in an office, that’s the first thing. So remote working is cost effective in that regard. But also you’re right, when matching the results with the demands. And so the law firms aren’t paying for these people to work, unless there is a client demand for them to be working, unless they are actually, essentially earning fees, so you’re getting that much tighter match than you necessarily get with an employee, and that will also help the capitalist in you too.

Robert: So I totally get that. Now I’ve done a recent stint working with a virtual firm and one of the things caught many people by surprise, was that virtual remote working isn’t for everyone. So given that, what sort of things do you do to, to determine whether it’s appropriate for people to join Free Range Lawyers, do you do any sort of screening in terms of their ability to work remotely or if it’s advantageous?

Katherine: Absolutely. Key elements of what we are selling is the fact that we’re doing this screening. And you are absolutely right. Remote working isn’t for everybody and we are not dogmatic about remote working. There is a place for in-office working and that suits some people, remote working suits others. So while I yes, I am a bit evangelical about the benefits of remote working, it’s remote working in the context of a wide variety of choice in terms of how the lawyers and the law firms operate. So yeah, we’re pretty structured about the way in which we select our lawyers. Experience tells me that having a clear process that everybody understands gets the best results. The one thing that we do that is really valuable is my partner, Bailey Bosch, Dr. Bailey Bosch, who is a psychologist, applies her expertise to really forensically assess whether somebody has the skills to work remotely, the behaviours, but also the motivation to make remote working happen.

And so we’re really clear about that. She actually leads and administers on nine psychometric assessments, which she then analyses, and which we then use in a Zoom interview, to really get to know the individual. And we find that remote working is not for everybody. The best thing that we can do is be honest about that and clear about that in our selection process. So you know, not everybody becomes a Free Range Lawyer. There are great lawyers out there and fantastic people who A) don’t make good contract lawyers, and B) don’t make good remote workers, and that’s fine. We just need to find the ones that do.

Robert: Okay, that’s good. So is there any demographic or psychographic that represents sight of this catchment for you? Is there an age group? Is there a gender?

Paul: So like parents, or people literally working outside of capital cities?

Katherine: You know what? There is much less of a typical demographic than you’d think. So I have people that actually live in cities but don’t want to do in-office working. I have people who live quite literally in the middle of the desert. I have people who are running their own farms. I have people who are recovering from serious illness and so they have a lot to offer, but being realistic about what they can and can’t do. So you know, the reality is there’s no typical demographic. What I would say is, our lawyers tend to have a few years experience under their belt, because to do this kind of working when you’re right at the start of your career is pretty challenging. So typically we’re looking at people over that five year PTE, and we do find that a lot of our lawyers are over the 10 year PTE mark. So that’s probably the only demographic market. In terms of, you mentioned psychographics, Robert, in terms of how people think and how people operate, we’ve got a much clearer picture in that regard.

Katherine: And obviously that’s what we apply to our selection. So, you know, contrary to the popular belief that I think considers remote working to be for real introverts, and people who don’t want to communicate, actually our experience is to be an effective remote worker you need to be a pretty sophisticated communicator, because you don’t have the structures that in-office working offers, that relationship building and socialising. And let’s be honest, you don’t have quite often those nonverbal cues that you can also find, so we’re actually looking for people who have really quite, sophisticated communication skills, are able to read well into a situation, understand when they need to kind of over-communicate and when they need to step back and allow things to get on. We also need people who are very self motivated and self driven, because again, without that in-office structure, because for some people it can actually be hard to knuckle down to work.

We need people who are able to have the right balance though because also my experience is I do a lot of remote working. My experience can often be that the day just goes. And I’ve barely got away from my desk because there were no interruptions. So we’re looking for people who can apply themselves well, but also have the mental bandwidth to make sure that they operate in a healthy way for themselves. And I guess the last thing is we’re looking for people who, can structure their tasks well, again, because you don’t have somebody sitting next to you to tell you how to do the work. So we need people who are able to understand what the problem and issue is, and then figure out a way to tackle it practically and get it done. So it’s really interesting, the psychographics are a lot clearer actually than the demographics.

Robert: Okay. That’s really interesting, and you learn a lot about yourself doing remote working. Again, having done a bit of work myself, and I think one of the things that I found was I can work really well but often I need a bit of background noise. I don’t necessarily need to be communicating with someone. But I need a bit of background noise. And so I found that I actually worked really well in a cafe, or often at coworking spaces as well. Would you allow lawyers to work from coworking spaces?

Katherine: So Free Range Lawyers, we don’t stipulate where people can work other than, obviously sensibly ensuring that it’s a suitable working space. If a law firm has a particular requirement in that regard, it’s very much down to them to communicate that. I’m first to make sure that it happens. So some of our people will work from coworking spaces. Far more, we find, have their own home office. And are operating in that way.

Robert: So I’m something of an outlier.

Katherine: Well, I think part of it is a function of where our people live. So coworking spaces still tend to be based in cities. Right. And if you’re doing what we’re doing, which is typically accessing people who are based outside cities, there’s just not as many as available. But those people are fortunate in that space is at less of a premium. So it’s kind of easier for them to also have a home office.

Robert: Fair enough. How do you communicate with your remote lawyers? Is that by video conference?

Katherine: Yeah, we use a lot of video conference. And in fact we use video conference in our selection process, and so anybody that’s been through the Free Range Lawyers selection process will recognise this, and it probably won’t surprise them that that is actually part of our selection process. So if you can’t use video conference effectively, or find a way round it pretty quickly, that in and of itself is going to ring alarm bells. So the medium is the message in that regard. But we use a combination. So it will be email, video conference and then increasing the staffing to use some of the messaging platforms, like Slack, for example, just to, to ease, ease off the old inbox and enable communication that’s a little bit more project based.

Robert: Okay. So onto the demand side, on the law firm side, when you’re talking with law firms, do they take convincing in terms of the use of remote lawyers? I can just imagine some objections being thrown out such as, morning line of sight of their solicitors, or as you mentioned before, confidentiality and security. Do you find that you get a bit of pushback in respect to that, or are we getting a bit more sophisticated?

Katherine: As with these things, it’s a mixed picture. So we are very clear that we are Free Range Lawyers, and we’re remote working and so a law firm sometimes self protects. I’m sure that I, therefore, won’t hear from law firms that don’t want to entertain that idea and that’s fine because that ensures we don’t waste anybody’s time. But those that do come through, there’s a real spectrum. So I’ve had several friends that have come to us directly, specifically because it happened, either they operate on a virtual basis or with one law firm, they just said that we want lawyers that think a bit differently, that are a bit creative, that are quite forward thinking and we saw your business and just thought, “Well, that’s a nice shortcut to finding those people, because the chances are if they become Free Range Lawyers, they’re going to think that way.” So when she said that I felt that’s great.

And then right at the other end of the spectrum I’ll get, and these are typically the much larger firms and the more established, so there was a clear distinction, in my experience, from the small and medium size, and medium could be a fairly chunky size, but a small or medium size organisations that are very willing to give anything a go. At the other end of the spectrum, the much larger law firms, we find just because of the very nature of their size and their established ways of operating, and that’s where there’s a little bit more convincing. But the reason I’m speaking to those law firms is a lot of them say, “We’ve been looking for this type of lawyer in this type of location for six months, nine months. We cannot find anybody. Can you help?” And I’ll say, “Well, can they work remotely? Or do they need to be an office?”

“Well, they would kind of need to be in the office.” “Okay, well, Free Range Lawyers are remote workers, so I’m not going to help you in that regard. But what I will say is if you’ve been looking for six, nine months, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find somebody, so you need to change one of those parameters. If you really need these skills, you need to change one of the parameters. Why not change the geographic location? And let’s see what that opens up. And instead of perhaps focusing on the person that you think you want sitting in a seat next to you, let’s talk about the output you want to achieve, right? So you’ve got an overworked team, a partner who’s desperate for help.

Let’s just talk about the work that needs to get done, rather than the person that you want to join the team. And if we can talk about the work that needs to get done, I can find you somebody to do it.” And then some firms, we still have people that don’t feel comfortable with the remote working. Others say, yeah, absolutely. Let’s give it a go. So the answer to your question is, as ever with these things, quite a broad spectrum of reactions, but what I am seeing is momentum in favour of remote working. I’m seeing a real shift in attitude.

Paul: Okay. Do you think the lawyers that are in the offices work well with the remote workers as a general sort of rule, like as part of a team? Having a team of, say, five lawyers working on a deal and then there’s one lawyer that’s working remotely, how does that kind of dynamic play out?

Katherine: Obviously again, it varies. I think it’s an interesting point to raise though, because we, as a sector, have a lot of learning to do around how to operate as a team when you’ve got some remote workers. So there are certain things that we’ll need to shift slightly and part of what we do, while we’re placing Free Range Lawyers with law firms for the first time, is just talk about some of the key things that can be put in place to make that arrangement as effective as possible.

Robert: Just following up from Paul’s question, how do you handle induction of remote lawyers?

Katherine: So we deploy a lot of Bailey’s skills on the psychological side, to really ensure that we have a clarity about, about the best way for them to operate. Bailey’s really good at working with the lawyers to make sure that they’ve got the right kind of setup in place for them to succeed. There’s also induction in terms of the assignments as well, and that’s around really understanding what the client law firm is looking for. Making sure we’re really clear about who the key points of a contact are, making sure we have clarity around literally the mechanism that’s going to be used for communication, and that they’re up and running on that. So we also get very involved in just making sure the nuts and bolts of the assignment are in place, as well as that bigger question around, how do you set yourself up to work effectively on a remote basis.

Robert: Okay. Yeah. So there’s sort of two levels of induction, isn’t there? Inducting them into that remote way of working and then inducting them into the client.

Katherine: Absolutely. We’re just finalising, actually, our handbook, which just gives them a lot more detail on kind of the nuances of working in this way. You know, it’s not necessarily going to be covered in our agreements, but there’s other stuff that we want to convey around the best way to operate. How to keep in touch, when to let us know, when to ask questions, and when to just get on with the work, really. So all of that kind of stuff from our experience of running the business just for the first sort of eight months, we’ll say, now we’ve collected that all in one place and we’re ready to share that in the next few weeks in a handbook. And that’s really the collective wisdom of Bailey, Kate and me, the team here, but then also the lawyers that have already been on assignments, you know, through us and what they’ve learned from that experience.

Robert: Oh, excellent.

Katherine: Yeah. This is a new way of doing things. And so we we need to be honest about the fact that we have expertise in this area, but we also need to be honest about the fact that we’re all learning, and if we can kind of share that learning, then we’ll all benefit.

Robert: Oh, absolutely. And it’s really good, intellectual property for your organisation too, to be able to set people up really well. Beautiful. One last question about the law firms, then I’m going to kick it over to the lawyers themselves. In terms of technology, do you find that law firms might be wanting to provide their own laptops or are firms happy for the lawyer to access their systems?

Katherine: Yeah, so, the way that we recommend the law firms operate is that they provide remote access into their IT systems for the lawyers, and then our Free Range Lawyers are working within that system and all of the information that is being used is staying within that system. So yeah, that’s our experience actually. And that’s what law firms are doing for their remote working employees already. That is already in place. That precedent is already set and it’s really just a case of deploying it for contract workers instead.

Robert: Yeah. Often law firms are concerned that I pay and storing things locally and things like that. So I was wondering how they felt about all that. Okay. I’m thinking over to the lawyers themselves. Do you actually help them on the technological side, do you help them with the technology as part of their induction and setup?

Katherine: The reality is that they will use the law firm’s technology when they’re on assignment. That’s the first point to make. So really we are, as part of our selection process, testing for their adaptability and their ability to pick things up quickly and just run with it. The second point is that the vast majority of people that come to Free Range Lawyers have already set themselves up working independently, and most of them have already been working independently remotely. So they’re pretty IT savvy, and actually, again, selecting people that work remotely is a nice, neat way of selecting people who are pretty self-help and used to using technology.

Where you find issues with this is perhaps more those that have always been used to going into an office and having that help on hand. And if you work for yourself, you work from a home office, you’ve got to be able to adapt and adjust and get things working. Because if you don’t, you can’t earn money. So actually we find Rob, we find that less of an issue than you might think just because of the people that we get on board.

Robert: Totally makes sense to me. And putting on my workplace hat. Do you assist the contractors at all with the setup of their home office environment or is that mostly over to them?

Katherine: It is largely over to them, because they’re independent contractors, and they’re working independently. Again, what we do is we advise on best practice and again, we use Bailey’s skills to make sure that we do that. Yeah. But again, because most of them are already operating in this way, they will have a setup that works for them.

Robert: Okay, cool. All right. Yeah. One of the things that I learned, as I said, I’ve worked a little bit within a virtual firm was, it’s important to create a sense of belonging. So how do you get sense of belonging for your Free Ranges?

Katherine: While they’re on assignment, they’re engaged to get some work done. You know, the primary aim is to get that work done for the law firm, but that gets done best if there’s good communication and a relationship going on there. So the way that we deal with it on assignment is really making sure that we have clarity about who they’re reporting to, and that those people have clear and open lines of communication. On the other side of things, one of the things that we’re starting to work on is really building off Free Range Lawyer community and putting off Free Range Lawyers in touch with each other. So we’ve actually been doing that. We’ve been doing that manually, since we started. If somebody’s got a particular issue or question, or they’re interested in a particular area, we will put them in touch with another Free Range Lawyer. What we’d like to see ourselves doing certainly towards the start of next year is having a bit more of a formal approach, to create that community and really develop it, cause what I find is people absolutely love saying, “I found my tribe, I found people that think like me and it stops that isolation that can occur.

Robert: Yeah, I like that. I think creating a net community that probably also locks people in or not locks them in, but it’s sort of a barrier that will exit, if you’re enjoying playing part of that community as well. Continuing professional development, is that their responsibility, or do you help them out at all with that?

Katherine: So, continuing professional development is very much the lawyer’s responsibility, and it’s part of being an independent contractor that you take responsibility for that. Again, it’s early days for us, but we would really like to see ourselves next year providing a CPD, not on the technical law side. That’s not where we can add to what’s already out there. But more on the remote working side, and the different ways of managing work, of managing life, of managing a mindset. So that’s something that we’re looking to focus on next year. And so our lawyers can tap into us for the continuing professional development, more on the management side of things.

Robert: Okay, excellent. Excellent. So last question around Free Range Lawyers is can they work from overseas?

Katherine: Yes, absolutely. And in fact, we have a Free Range Lawyer who is working from overseas for an Australian firm. So essentially what we’re looking for are people who are UK qualified and we know that that doesn’t quite exist, but you know what we mean? Meaning Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australian or New Zealand qualified and really the thinking is that the skills are very transferable between those jurisdictions. So if people have one or more of those qualifications actually where they’re based doesn’t matter. That’s the whole point of this. It’s about the skill within the person and the services that that person has to offer rather than where they’re sitting and where they’re based.

Robert: Just putting my marketing hat on for a second. I’m interested in sort of how you have gone about marketing Free Range wise. So is it wisely relationship based, have you been driving it through social media? What’s, in your mind, been best for your marketing?

Katherine: My background is in marketing sales and obviously I’ve worked in contract lawyer space for a while and that really helps me to kind of understand the best way to tap into this market. And what I know from that is it’s very relationship based. It’s very word of mouth, particularly when you’re doing something new. Social proof is really important. So hearing from somebody that has done this already, and have enjoyed it and benefited from it is vitally important. So, and we also know that in this kind of business, there’s no substitute for those personal relationships. So you’ll see on our website, it’s very much about Bailey, and me, and what we offer, and the way we operate, and the way we interact with people, rather than some algorithm, matching up lawyers with assignments in the background. And so yeah, our marketing has been very social media led, and very personality led with the two of us. And we found that that’s worked really well so far, and it’s been really effective in finding the right kind of people.

Paul: Hmm. And the name helps as well. You know what it is straight away.

Katherine: I said to you before, Paul, the moment I realised I had to do this was when I thought, that name is so good, I’ve got to use it, and it works. People don’t forget the name, and actually a few people counselled me against using it when I was thinking of setting up, but my gut instinct said, no, it’s a good one. Go with it. And I’m so glad that I did.

Robert: Awesome. So how does pricing work?

Katherine: It’s a really simple model in that we agree a rate with a lawyer, and we add a margin on, and then that’s the rate that we charge the law firm. We agree with the lawyer a range of rates within which we will operate, rather than sticking to a single rate because there are a whole variety of reasons and factors that will affect the rate that a lawyer will work. So yeah, that’s the model that we operate.

Robert: Very simple, I like it. Cool. Cool.

Katherine: Thank you.

Robert: You’re welcome. It’s very thoughtful the way you’ve approached this. And I think that’s lovely that you also identify that it’s still something that you’re working on and improving all the time. So I wish you the best of luck.

Katherine: Thank you, Rob. Thanks very much.

Paul: All right, we’re going to get started with the lightning round now. Katherine, what’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?

Katherine: I think it’s trust your gut instinct. So if something feels right, it is right, and if it feels wrong, it most definitely is wrong. So don’t underestimate the power of feeling in business.

Paul: I couldn’t agree more. What was your first ever job?

Katherine: My first job was selling pies at West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa football grounds, pies and coffee. And it was character building, that’s for sure.

Paul: Yep. Cool. If someone really knew you very well, what is one thing that they’d know about you that others wouldn’t?

Katherine: They would know that I am… Oh, that’s a really tricky one. What would they know about me that others wouldn’t? Okay. They would know that I’m distantly related by marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

Paul: Wow. That’s out there. Can you nominate another legal industry leader that you hold great respect for, that you think we should have on the podcast?

Katherine: Oh, there are so many, Paul, that I would nominate somebody that has been really generous to me since I moved to Australia, and has since become a good friend, but who I respect a great deal professionally, and that’s, that’s a mutual contact of ours, Jodie Baker.

Paul: Well, I think we have her coming up on the show in a few weeks. I think so.

Katherine: We’re of one mind. Yeah. What Jodie has to say is so worth listening to, but as I say, not just that, she’s very generous with her time and ideas. So that would be a really interesting one to listen to.

Paul: Awesome. That’s great. If you could lead any company in the world other than Free Range Lawyers, what company would that be?

Katherine: I think it would be base camp.

Paul: I knew you were going to say that.

Katherine: I just can’t stop talking about them. I don’t know what I’d do if I ever met one of the two founders, well, I wouldn’t be able to speak, I don’t think. Because, I love their product, but I just love the way that they built their business, and the messages that they give out around just cutting through the rubbish and sticking to the knitting as we say in the UK, and just being realistic and honest about what it takes to build a business. So yeah, I would love to work with those two guys.

Paul: Their advice in their books is just amazing. Yeah. Cool. And last one, if listeners would like to connect with you, or apply for a job at Free Range Lawyers, what’s the best way to get in touch?

Katherine: Yeah, so my website address is pretty simple. It’s freerangelawyers.com. So we’re pretty easy to find in that regard. And you can either apply online, or you can click on contact us and get hold of us that way. You can book a kind of introductory chat, if you’d just like to find out a little bit more about us. And then as I say, I’m a big believer in using LinkedIn, so find me there, Katherine Thomas, Katherine with a K and I’d be really happy to connect.

Paul: Fantastic. Thanks so much for being on the show, Katherine,

Katherine: Thanks for having me Paul and Rob. Thanks very much. I’ve really enjoyed it.