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Potential freelance solicitors told: Don’t resign just yet

Bennett: Huge amount of interest

There is a “huge amount of interest” among lawyers in becoming freelance solicitors under the new Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) rules, but they have been warned not to hand in their notice just yet.

Paul Bennett, a partner in Bennett Briegal and an expert in law firm regulation, said the rule change, scheduled for 25 November this year, could be subject to “slippage”, as happened with such timetables.

“If you’ve got a six-month notice period with your current partnership or employer, you probably don’t want to be giving notice until you’re certain that the rules are coming in.”

He advised potential freelance solicitors – called ‘independent solicitors’ by the SRA [1] – to draw-up a business plan to cover at least six months and think very carefully about whether being a freelance solicitor was the right business model for them.

Mr Bennett said he was seeing a “huge amount of interest” in becoming a freelance solicitor, often from people who he did not expect would find it appealing.

“In many cases, it’s not the right model. The right model is a small law firm.”

Mr Bennett said that for those with physical or mental problems, or “who perhaps have financial problems”, his advice would be: “Don’t go anywhere near it.”

He said he did not like an analogy with sole practitioners, as solos could employ people, keep client accounts and were insured. He advised sole practitioners not to “leap into” the freelance model.

However, he said that management consultants had shown that there was a future for professionals who wanted to operate as sole traders, and direct access barristers operated in a similar way.

Discussing freelance solicitors in a Law Society podcast [2], Mr Bennett said people needed to learn about the positive aspects of the rule changes, which could appeal to solicitors leaving more established practices and operated in low-risk areas of work with sufficient insurance.

“People often talk about freelance solicitors as the Wild West and unregulated. That isn’t true. You’ve got the individual code of conduct.

“What I will be saying to every potential freelance solicitor is that the SRA Principles and the individual code amount to 10 pages.

“You can, as a highly educated professional holding yourself out for a decent hourly rate, make those documents your best friend and you’ll be in a better place than anyone foolish enough not to.”

Mr Bennett repeated the view he expressed earlier this year [3] that there was “no appetite” in the insurance industry to cover freelance solicitors. However, he predicted that this would change.

“If insurers can see that risks are being managed, they will think: ‘Actually I can make some money out of this’.

“Those seeking insurance will have to have a real focus on risk and compliance. Not many people will want to be in the market, and they will want to be reassured about the kind of individuals becoming freelance solicitors.”

Mr Bennett said nobody knew what the SRA meant by requiring freelance solicitors to have “adequate” indemnity insurance, and the SRA was still working on a policy.

He said the risks for potential freelance solicitors were different, depending on whether they were young lawyers wanting to leave their firms, mothers with children wanting to return to work or older lawyers wishing to “wind down” their careers.

He added that there was also a risk for law firms in the rule changes, and a need to train their staff about freelance solicitors and solicitors practising from unregulated firms – another change scheduled for the autumn.