The strange case of agencies and lawyers

1987

Letter – Edward Lyles spells out for the first time that he plans to offer freelance legal advice. “I will not do your case for you as a solicitor,” he writes. “I will give full legal aid advice.”

1959

The experience of late 1950s and early 1960s boomers from professions like law is that there were jobs for them where they were respected and valued, once they had a graduate qualification. Some saw themselves as running their own practice and developing in-house lawyers and they could do so without the need for agency.

They could earn about half of what a high-flying lawyer would have in the same industry in the same office while making an enormous impact – and influence – over the firms.

But boomers stopped coming to agencies and managing clients in a way that neared the conventional wisdom of the high-flying lawyers. They ended up sending their business to the legal competition.

“The gap in output has diminished the standard of my work,” observes Paul Boyd, head of corporate clients at the Arent Fox law firm.

24% of people surveyed by Legal Week had used a freelancer to manage their in-house legal team since 2005. Of these, 45% have done so every year since then. The survey reflects the rapid growth of agencies, which can bring a particular set of skills and experiences to clients.

80% of US newspapers that used freelance lawyers in the 1990s have gone out of business. Over half of newspapers in Western Europe and 55% of newspapers in Eastern Europe have resorted to using freelancers.

These agencies also need lawyers as a dependable employee, not simply to provide legal advice to consultants. Just as many people work in a career or group with more than one boss and team members, so it is with freelancers. The teams need the advice on issues of work practice. One partner of a top 50 law firm reports that “60 to 70% of our new junior lawyers arrive with a properly functioning practice area and a client profile”.

Short-termism is not just a rule of the high-flying lawyers and being seen to take too many risks. Although it is estimated that there are 400,000 law firms in the world, 80% of UK firms said they have five or fewer staff.

Creative agencies now have a significant effect on the staffing of marketing agencies. You do not need 250 highly paid employees to do some of their creative work. The indomitable Laura Ryder helped put ad agency DDB on the map, and Adbusters magazine is a serious contender with its no-agencies approach to advertising.

“We have cut our staff from 400 to 180,” reports one agency managing director.

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