Are you experienced? How contracting can upgrade your career prospects

The traditional career route isn’t a path as well travelled as it used to be in the legal profession. Once the be-all and end-all, partnership isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal anymore.

In fact, when asked about this, a survey of contract lawyers revealed that just over half (51%) believed partnership in private practice is no longer the major goal for lawyers. Of course, these numbers were close, with the other 49% believing partnership is still the desired end game for most lawyers.

Whether partnership is on your mind as an immediate goal or not, a greater variety of experience is something which can help pep up a CV and drive a career forward. We are seeing associates increasingly turn to contract lawyering as a way to diversify their expertise and experience in different sectors.

When contract lawyering first broke on to the legal scene about 10 years ago, it was initially seen as a way for lawyers nearing the end of their careers – but not quite ready to retire – to keep working. It was also seen as a way for new parents to work more flexibly. And while both of these types of lawyers are definitely still contracting, we’ve seen a broader spectrum of professionals deciding to take this path, to work in a more agile way.

While the added flexibility of contracting remains a draw, with some lawyers able to live abroad for instance, the variety of work on offer is actually the biggest motivator behind the switch. The survey we conducted questioned contract lawyers’ drivers behind going freelance and the majority (45%) stated the variety of legal work was the main reason, with 42% citing the desire for a better work/life balance.

For associates looking to boost their CV, a stint of freelancing can certainly help in creating new opportunities and open up sectors and industries. For instance, one of our less experienced contract lawyers has worked in a bank, a Premier League football club and a data company. Most of the placements last between six and 18 months, and working like this really helps people develop into well-rounded and knowledgeable senior lawyers.

Each industry has its own idiosyncrasies, and working in-house helps ensure a lawyer becomes quickly immersed in the culture, enabling them to do the job more efficiently. This can be a steep but valuable learning curve, with contract lawyers picking up lots of invaluable experience and insider knowledge that can help across different assignments, or if the lawyer goes on to deal with clients in that industry in the future.

However, contracting isn’t an easy switch for every lawyer to make. As well as solid legal expertise, soft skills are very important and the pressure of being parachuted into a business and being expected to perform from day one doesn’t suit every type of personality. To make a great contractor, a lawyer should be flexible, have fantastic people skills and be able to perform well under pressure.

Nevertheless, contracting is another path for lawyers looking for a different way to work and can be a great way to add variety and some points of difference to a senior associate’s CV.

Matthew Kay is director of Vario for Pinsent Masons.