The future of the legal profession: flexible resourcing

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistThursday 21 October 2021

The drive towards flexible working has been greatly accelerated by Covid-19. As businesses embrace alternative ways of working, law firms are increasingly looking to flexible resourcing models to boost their offering in new markets.

Examples include Allen & Overy launching the US arm of its Peerpoint platform and two new ventures by Irish law firm William Fry. Peerpoint, a platform which places external lawyers with clients on a short-term basis, has been a reference point since 2013. After expanding to the Asia-Pacific in 2015, the platform made its Middle East debut in the United Arab Emirates in May this year and expanded to the US market in October.

Although Peerpoint’s US arm has been a long time in the making, Carolyn Aldous, Peerpoint’s global managing director, told Global Insight that the pandemic had clearly accelerated global demand for flexible resourcing in the legal market. ‘On the talent side we have seen many lawyers reconsidering their careers and priorities, something that has been commented on across much of the general workforce – aka the ‘Great Resignation’ trend,’ she says. ‘In terms of client demand, we have seen a sharp rise in this as in-house legal teams experience budget constraints and resourcing challenges.’

On the other side of the Atlantic, William Fry caused a stir last month when it set up not one, but two new initiatives to meet rising client demand, making it the first full-service firm in Ireland to fully embrace the flexible resourcing model.

The first venture – William Fry Connect – is aimed at attracting experienced lawyers who want to work flexibly on a pay-as-you-work basis. The second – PeopleBridge – follows in the footsteps of ventures like Peerpoint and places external lawyers with clients on a short-term basis. These moves would be novel for any jurisdiction, let alone one that is still getting to grips with flexible and alternative resourcing models.

‘We saw this as being an opportunity for us to be the first mover,’ says Owen O'Sullivan, William Fry’s managing partner. ‘The PeopleBridge business model was also motivated by the number of secondment requests that we were getting. At the same time, we were aware of former employees and others who were in a place where they wanted to have flexibility over when they would work, which is what William Fry Connect offers – an ability to practice as a William Fry lawyer on fully flexible terms.’

We don't see why it won't become commonplace because it makes so much sense for law firms and for lawyers

Matthew Cahill
Banking and finance partner, William Fry

The benefits of linking both initiatives to the brand of a well-recognised full-service firm are key, says Matthew Cahill, a banking and finance partner who has been leading the two projects internally. Cahill joined William Fry in May 2020 after practising for just over a year at gunnercooke, one of the UK’s leading virtual law firms. ‘As a top tier firm, not only can we offer people the flexibility of going in-house with our PeopleBridge offering, we can also offer people a flexible option to join us through William Fry Connect and practice on fully flexible terms as a William Fry lawyer if they are the right calibre in the same way that lawyers can at Keystone or gunnercooke, but with a big difference – we have a top tier brand that lawyers joining us can leverage. That to us is the innovation that we believe we’ve brought to the top end of the legal market in Ireland.’

Dan Fox, CEO of Johnson Hana, Ireland’s only resident alternative legal service provider, says William Fry’s initiatives are a welcome addition to the sector. ‘Ultimately, if this provides further access for lawyers to work flexibly, this is something we get behind,’ he says. ‘Any innovation like this in the Irish market is a good thing and hopefully opens eyes to the power of flexibility and alternative models.’

There may be further change afoot as jurisdictions around the world attempt to get back to more ‘business as usual’ working practices and firms make tough decisions about their flexible working policies. ‘As vaccination rates improve, law firms, like many other businesses, will need to ascertain and implement their suitable approach on working and resourcing models,’ says Hanim Hamzah, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Law Firm Management Committee and Regional Manager of the ZICO Law network based in Singapore. ‘In South-East Asia, where ZICO Law operates, vaccination access and inequities have resulted in this decision being delayed as most, if not all, of the 10 ASEAN countries where we have offices are still on work-from-home requirements.’

The change in working culture is already clear in other jurisdictions and is opening up new opportunities, says Aldous. ‘Markets that previously had business cultures heavily dependent on face-to-face meetings, such as Dubai, have embraced the new ways of working,’ she says. ‘These changes have presented us with an additional opportunities whereby clients can access in-market consultants or access remote support from other Peerpoint locations.’

O’Sullivan says if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that there’s already an appetite in the Irish legal market for greater flexibility for lawyers at various stages of their career. ‘It’s acknowledging that people can work in various different ways,’ he says. ‘People who have been out of the workforce for relatively short periods have shown great interest in this as a stepping stone back into something. Others want to retain flexibility while their families might be young or their parents might have particular needs.’

As the pressure continues to raise salaries, attract and retain talent, Cahill believes the ‘lifestyle flexibility’ offered by these resourcing models could be the next frontier of the legal market. ‘We don't see why it won't become commonplace because it makes so much sense for law firms and for lawyers,’ he says. ‘These offerings also are part of our efforts at promoting inclusivity and diversity and helping people to stay in the workforce longer or on terms that work in their personal circumstances. We also see this as part of our social engagement and furthering our ESG credentials, which is also an important part of the agenda for all firms today.’

Image: eamesBot/ Shutterstock.com

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