two interim lawyers walking in an office hallway for blog post

Considering interim/locum work? Top tips on what you should think about before making the move

As a recruitment consultant for the public sector who specialises in temporary appointments, I have seen a marked rise in the number of lawyers considering leaving their permanent employment behind in order to take up locum work via an agency such as Chadwick Nott.

Perhaps you have been considering something like this yourself?

As part of their research, legal professionals will call me to make an initial enquiry about how the market works and if I believe they will be successful as an interim lawyer.

They may have seen the staggering number of agency adverts out there seeking locum lawyers and have been impressed by the high hourly rates on offer. Perhaps they have spoken with a colleague at work who is a locum lawyer themselves and have become intrigued by the prospect of flexible contract work. They may be looking to relocate in order to be with loved ones, but need to find work by their new home quickly.  They may be facing redundancy and feel exhausted at the prospect of having to start looking for another permanent job, a process that can be time consuming and drawn out.  Some are simply tired or bored of their current employment and fancy a change, but quickly.

All of these are great reasons to consider making the move to interim work, but there is no one blue print to guide you to become a successful interim lawyer. 

Lawyers register with me for a number of different reasons and every person brings with them a different set of skills and personality traits. But there are a few things that I have noticed over the course of my career that strongly improve a candidate’s chances of securing regular locum work that not only pays well, but is also enjoyed and deemed meaningful by the lawyer. 

These are points that I have picked up over 6 years of solely placing temporary lawyers into the public sector. They are the key things that I will advise candidates in permanent employment to bear in mind before they take the plunge and start the formal process of obtaining locum work. 

*I use the words locum, interim and contract interchangeably throughout this article

Be an expert in your area of law (but a humble one!)

Most locum roles require lawyers with substantial PQE. There are always exceptions to the rule and I have seen NQ – 5 year PQE lawyers flourish in locum roles. Most roles however, will be secured by lawyers with six or more years PQE, sometimes significantly more than this.

To break down the reasons why this is the trend will take another article, but in sum locum lawyers tend to earn more money (sometimes a lot more money ) than their permanent counterparts and it is human instinct to equate a higher price to better quality—and in this market, quality tends to be equated with PQE (rightly or wrongly).

Expertise is also important when looking at the type of work you might be asked to handle.  My clients don’t seek locum support because everything is rosy. Temporary workforce solutions are exactly that: they are solutions to staffing problems, which means the caseload you are required to cover could be work that hasn’t been done properly, hasn’t been handled in a long time, or is too complex for the current staffing levels.  There may also be no opportunity to be supervised and little training available. 

As a locum lawyer you should feel confident in your area of law and completely up front with any prospective hiring manager about your expertise. But no bragging please!  

Consider the right area of law

Now that we know you’re an expert in your field, is it the right field? 

Every area of law has the potential to offer consistent locum work, but some areas are much more ‘popular’ than others.  It’s crucial that you are made aware of the realistic chances of securing regular locum work that actually fits your personal requirements. You can do this simply by reaching out to a specialist temporary recruitment consultant for your chosen sector. He or she should be more than willing to talk you through the demand and market trends for your specialism.

As a rule of thumb, the broader your skill set within your specialist area, the more likely it will be that multiple clients can match your skill set with their job description, which means your chances of securing regular work are higher.

Be available for work

If you are leaving behind a permanent job, chances are you are on 3 months’ notice. This is something that can’t be avoided.  Notice periods are an inevitable and an important part of your contractual obligations to your employer, confirming your professionality and hopefully securing that excellent leaver’s reference.  But the likelihood of securing temporary work before you’ve handed in your notice is slim. It’s not impossible, but it’s tough.

You will also need to have a serious think about when you take your annual leave.  The locum lawyer is most likely to be asked to cover periods of increased permanent staff absence such as school holidays or the week in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Would you be prepared to move your annual leave in order to accommodate your client?

I will also make the point here about flexible working. The public sector market is very flexible and supportive of part-time workers, flexi time and home working; but the locum market is a fickle beast. On the one hand my clients can (and most will) accommodate all of this, but on the other hand if the client needs an office presence and the work has been piling up for a few weeks, the preference is going to be for a full-time office-based contractor, if one is available. 

Be a people person

Contracting will require you to walk into a new place of work, with a host of new personalities and office politics, without really having any idea about what to expect.  You may have only spoken to one person before arrival and that person may now be on annual leave.

Unlike the permanent recruitment process, it is highly unlikely that you will have a series of interviews to meet your colleagues and asses “personality fit”.   Instead, telephone interviews are very common for speed and convenience.

The most successful contractors aren’t phased by meeting new people. They will take initiative and introduce themselves to their new team. They may be the most experienced lawyer in the office, but they won’t let their new colleagues feel inadequate or intimidated. They will find their place in the team quickly and efficiently and won’t be shy when it comes to making new acquaintances.

Know your motivations

This is a big one. The locum market isn’t for the traditional career builder.  If you are the kind of person that measures their progression through promotion then this market will leave you frustrated. 

It is true that some locum lawyers are indeed promoted. Some decide to take up their post permanently, and some take locum roles as a way of improving their career prospects, but the majority of locum roles do not offer chances for promotion and progression.

That’s not to say that you won’t be seriously upskilled by taking locum work and with your new locum experience, there will hopefully come a better hourly rate for the next assignment. But from a CV writing point of view, no temporary role comes with a defined career path through the organisation you are working at.

It’s worth noting that the locum lawyer occupies a strange sphere. Technically they are employed by the agency, but they are overseen by the end client. This means getting direct feedback about your work can be difficult. If you are the sort of person who is motivated by positive feedback or constructive criticism then you may also struggle in this market.

Be open to travel

The locum market is unpredictable. In the public sector there are a lot of temporary roles, but that doesn’t mean they are conveniently placed. And the more conveniently located the post is, the more competition there will be which will mean the hourly rate on offer won’t be as competitive.

Very few of us get to work around the corner from where we work, but you will need to have a serious think about how far you are actually willing to travel, how many days you can work in the office or even if you are willing to stay overnight.

Think about relatives and friends you can spend the night with or have a look at accommodation prices at local hotels. Would it be financially viable if you were to consider working in a more remote location?

The rule of thumb is the bigger the geographical area you can cover, the better your chances are of securing consistent, well paid locum work.

Can you handle being out of work waiting for the right role to turn up?

How would you react if whilst out on assignment, a client ran out of funding unexpectedly and issued you your notice?  Could you handle being out of work temporarily? Are you reliant on a guaranteed monthly income or are you quite flexible as to when and how you earn your money?

The happy reality is that most locum contracts, certainly in the public sector, are very secure. Most last well over a year if not longer. But on paper all you can be guaranteed is around 3 months and for some that isn’t enough of a guarantee. Extensions to contracts might not be issued until the very last minute.  Would this be okay or would you need to know where you stand well in advance?

Do we get on?

Your agency will be the key to securing you the right work. When you join the locum market you will suddenly find yourself in a world of paperwork and new information: think compliance documents, referencing and timesheets, not to mention CV writing and re-writing, payroll options etc. Therefore, it’s really important that you actually get on with your recruitment consultant and trust that they know what they are talking about.

Giving up permanent employment is a big step and it is critical that both consultant and candidate have an open and honest relationship. The more your consultant knows about you the better they can represent you and get you work that matches your skillset and motivations.

It’s hard to put your trust in someone who you might only ever speak to over the phone, but unlike the permanent recruitment process, the agency relationship doesn’t end once you have secured work, so make sure that you are working with a consultant you actually like and one you trust to act in your best interests.

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