Alternatively you can read the guide online below.
How to be a Successful Locum Solicitor
by Jonathan Fagan
Sponsored by www.interimlawyers.co.uk, the Locum Solicitor Recruitment Service from Ten-Percent.co.uk Limited.
This guide is aimed at anyone interested or thinking about becoming a locum. It is not designed as a guide to encourage you to become a locum, far from it. Instead it discusses the practicalities and hopefully gives you a flavour of the world of locuming.
It has been written by me, Jonathan Fagan, Managing Director of Ten-Percent.co.uk Limited and a solicitor (of the non-practising variety). I have been working intensively in the locum field now for about 4 years, although I have been a recruitment consultant with Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment since April 2000. InterimLawyers.co.uk is our specialist locum arm and I concentrate most of my time finding locum lawyers for smaller sized commercial firms and high street solicitors practices.
If you don’t agree with any points I make in this guide, please email me at email@example.com so that we can learn from our mistakes.
Who is the Typical Locum?
Becoming a legal locum can mean a lot of different things to a variety of people.
The vast majority of successful professional legal locums are lawyers who have particular lifestyle requirements that make locuming the ideal choice for fitting work in with their other interests. These are the locums favoured by Interim Lawyers and preferred by our clients.
A common type of locum is the semi-retired solicitor who has reached the ripe old age of 55 and decided that he or she is just too young to retire completely. They may have families to support still, elderly relatives to look after or expensive hobbies that need financing.
The other sort of often-seen locum is the returner to work. These can be women coming back into the profession after taking time to raise a family, but not wanting to particularly sit in an office for 5 days a week on a full time basis. We also see carers who do not want to be tied down to work flat out when they may need to take time out for respite care. Solicitors returning to work after serious illness make up a significant group as well.
Some solicitors become locums after unsavoury incidents at work, which prevent them from taking salaried positions. Others have run their own law firms only to fall on hard times and require a job of any sort in order to stave off or survive bankruptcy. Both of these types of locums are often avoided by firms, although a bit of locum work for some can be a lifeline back into the world of work. However it is often considered that the baggage travelling with the damaged lawyer can be quite overwhelming, not only in commitment, but also in their approach to work.
There is no real standard type of locum. I can think of locums on our books who are in their late 60s and just like working. Similarly we have professional locums in their 30s who want to go travelling for part of the year and finance this by working in the other part of the year.
Starting out as a locum
The first thing to be aware of is that you cannot leave a full time permanent job and expect to walk straight into a locum role. It rarely works out like this. Very often you have to make a decision to leave the comfort of your salaried full time post and sit at home to wait for your first assignment.
You also need to work out your finances before even getting near an assignment. If you have a mortgage to pay and no other family income then becoming a locum is probably not a good idea unless you have contacts able to guarantee you regular work. Locums can spend considerable time waiting for assignments to come through, particularly at quiet times of the year.
Think about why you are considering locum work. Is it for lifestyle, is it because the grass is greener on the other side? Can you actually afford to be a locum?
Consider the types of law you are able to offer. If you are not a commercial property solicitor, wills & probate lawyer or residential conveyancing fee earner then chances are your locum work opportunities are going to be quite sporadic. Litigation can be particularly bad, especially if you are unable to travel.
Also look at geographical coverage. So many potential locums fail to think through the practicalities of covering an assignment 200 miles away. How will this impact on your family commitments? Can you feasibly afford to book into a hotel or B&B and offer competitive hourly rates? If not, where can you realistically travel to on a daily basis? If based in the south, will train fares eat up too much of your fee or will the M25 cause you to waste too much time travelling to the firm and back?
Locums who want to be in regular work have to commit to assignments and work through considerable issues in order to get more regular bookings.
Locum Bookings – how they work
Every day in the busy season (April to October) we get calls from law firms across the UK. Usually our clients want locums to start immediately or within 7 days. The firm will want to see references, proof of ID, proof of residence and a practising certificate. They will indicate the hourly rates as negotiable and almost certainly call 3 other agencies unless we are preferred suppliers.
We will immediately post the vacancy onto our system and send out email alerts to all our locums for that field of law. Usually we expect a response from our regulars within the hour and very often unless we have a CV into a new firm within 2 hours it is unlikely we will get the assignment.
Our first preferences will be locums we have worked with before, and our second priority will be ensuring that we get the right level of experience at a reasonable hourly rate.
Law firms fall into two categories: firstly those who want experience and will pay for it and secondly those who want to pay as little as possible. Sadly a good number of locum assignments fall into the second category and we have to be acutely aware of this when submitting CVs.
Once we have identified our preferred locums we then have to check we have the necessary paperwork on file. We always go with locums who have supplied us with references and proof of ID etc.. before going with those who have not sent this across. Very often for emergency locum assignments we find ourselves chasing references on a Friday afternoon for a Monday morning start if we have had to use a new locum. Naturally we prefer to avoid this wherever possible!
After we have provided locum CVs to firms we then have to sort out the usual requests for further information. A lot of locums do not provide detailed enough CVs and firms very often want to know a bit more about actual locum experience or alternatively want to check a particular gap on the CV. There is a separate article about preparing a locum CV on our site and should be read carefully..
The firms rarely want to negotiate hourly rates with us as the majority accept that in an emergency or at short notice they should be grateful for a locum just being available.
Once we have supplied CVs – we usually aim to get a selection of three in – we will be asked by the firm which one we recommend. Again we always go with the locums we know in the first instance rather than unknowns. However we find ourselves working with a new locum after an emergency assignment and these then become our regulars in future.
When we first started out we contacted every law firm within a few days of the end of an assignment to ask how it went, but have found this counter productive. Instead we only approach firms to ask for feedback if a locum has given a firm as a reference.
Top Tips for getting assignments
- Make sure your CV is as detailed as possible. It is no good sending us a CV that does not tell us what you have been doing for the past 20 years. Just writing “Conveyancing” does not give us anything near enough detail!
- Make sure your CV is presentable as possible. So many CVs are poorly produced, badly laid out and with multiple fonts all over the place. If this is what your CV looks like then what on earth are your files and letters going to be like?
- Be prepared to take assignments away from home to start with. Go for everything you can and if offered a post make sure you fulfil it. We rarely offer a locum a second chance if they fail to turn up or cancel at short notice. Our business depends on our reputation and locums who pull out are just about the most damaging thing to our company’s future existence that we can think of.
- Make sure you have supplied us with two references from recent employers. To whom it may concern references are best.
- Don’t get disillusioned when you miss out on an assignment. Keep trying – sooner or later one will come up and you will start getting regular bookings.
Top Tips for not getting assignments
- Be as awkward as possible when we ask you for paperwork,.
- Refuse to supply references.
- Send us a one page CV with large time gaps on.
- Not bother renewing your practising certificate.
- Reply to our updates a week later.
- Agree to cover a locum role and then not turn up.
- Sit at your locum assignment and run another business (this has happened).
- Tap up other solicitors firms you deal with whilst in your locum role and ask them for work.
Common Reasons for Locum Roles Falling Through
Very often we take locum assignment requests from law firms, find locums, send over CVs and then the assignment falls through. This is common and to be expected in the legal profession. We don’t get disheartened. It happens. You shouldn’t worry either. It happens.
These are the common reasons for locum roles falling through:
- The firm never needed a locum – the practice manager decided to make sure they could get one at short notice if they required one.
- The firm took one look at the hourly rate of a locum and decided to deal with the work internally.
- The partners found a friend of a friend who knew someone who could come in and help.
- One partner who decided he or she needed a locum was outvoted by his or her colleagues who decided he or she did not.
- The firm recruited a new permanent member of staff who found they could start a lot earlier.
- Maternity leave did not go ahead or ended early.
- (our favourite) – the firm found someone from another source.
We particularly like the last one when a firm find someone from another source within 5-10 minutes of calling us. This happened today. 4.40pm – a London firm call for a locum to start the following day. Sound very desperate. 4.50pm we supply 2 locums plus terms and conditions. 5pm – the firm have found someone. Suspect this was a case of the firm not needing a locum in the first place rather than they found someone elsewhere.
It can be a very frustrating experience agreeing to cover locum assignments. Not only are you up against other locums within our agency, but very often you are also up against other agencies. In the high peak season – July-September – it is very often a question of who is available to cover an assignment and the likelihood will be that we have one candidate. In the winter season we usually get 5 or 6 locums applying for each assignment. As you would expect each locum has a 1 in 5 or 6 chance of getting the job. The odds are even higher because two of these locums will be preferred choices for us – ie those who we have full references for and have worked through us in the past.
Your Locum Set Up
Just about all the locums who work through us do so on a self-employed basis. Every now and then we see a locum using an umbrella company or working through a limited company. A small minority are registered for VAT.
The easiest way to work as a locum lawyer is simply to set yourself up as self-employed. You do this by getting in touch with the HMRC and notifying them of the fact. In turn they will get you to register as self-employed and start paying your class 4 National Insurance Contributions. This does not mean much – it’s a small amount. At the end of each tax year you complete a self-assessment form and pay the tax due. Very easy and nothing much to worry about. It is rare that locums need to use an accountant to prepare the accounts. It is also worth avoiding being VAT registered where possible because the overwhelming majority of locums are not and you will be competing against them.
This is a selection of commonly asked questions about locums. We have further articles on our website regarding locuming as a solicitor or legal executive including hourly rates and improving your CV.
Q: Am I considered self-employed or an employee?
All the locums working through Interim Lawyers are self employed. Working on a self-employed basis gives both the locum and the law firm or in house legal department so much more flexibility and is better from a tax perspective.
However the question as to whether the assignment is classed as self-employed or employed also depends on the Inland Revenue (HMRC). For example if you worked for one firm for 3 years on a regular monthly salary payment equivalent, HMRC may well determine that your arrangement is one of an employee/employer and you would be treated as such from a tax perspective. It is quite clear however that locums engaged for short periods of time who regularly work for a wide range of law firms or in house legal departments are self-employed for the purposes of tax and national insurance.
Longer term or regular locum employment for specific fixed hours each week may be regarded by the Inland Revenue and contributions agency as salaried employment and therefore liable to PAYE and employer’s NIC. We have never come across an arrangement that has fallen prey to this, but you do need to be aware of the tax implications of just working for one firm for a lengthy period of time.
Q: Am I covered by professional indemnity insurance if I work as a locum or do I need to take out a policy?
Unlike doctors and other professionals, solicitors’ firm Professional Indemnity Insurance usually covers locum solicitors working on behalf of the law firm. In 99.5% of cases locum and temporary members of staff are covered by our clients’ professional indemnity insurance policy. If you are unsure at any time before an assignment begins please contact us and we will gladly check for you. Whilst you are on site with a client you can ask the firm’s practice manager or one of the partners and ask for confirmation.
Most law firms would be surprised to be asked about PII because it is taken for granted that locums are covered, but with all the changes in the market and different rules applying to so many areas of a law firm practice, it can be worth checking.
A very small number of locum solicitors do take out their own policies just to be on the safe side, and the cheapest way of doing this is to use a price comparison site.
To give you an idea of the cost, we have professional indemnity insurance ourselves, although our terms exclude liability, and the cost is minimal – less than £30 per month. We would expect a similar rate for a locum solicitor because we understand that liability for any errors will rest with the client in most circumstances rather than the locum.
Q: What are the locum rates of pay for a solicitor or lawyer?
The hourly or daily rate is usually a matter for negotiation between the parties although we very often specify an hourly rate based on discussions with our client before an introduction is made.
A lot of locums have an hourly rate they use to start negotiations and this tends to vary according to the length of an assignment. Longer assignments attract lower hourly rates. We publish an updated guide at www.interimlawyers.co.uk and in our monthly newsletters at www.legal-recruitment.co.uk
Q: What are the terms and conditions of employment for a locum?
This will depend upon whether you are self-employed or an employee of the law firm or in house legal department who have signed you.
If you are engaged on a long term locum assignment and have been advised by an accountant that you are likely to be regarded as an employee, you should be offered a contract of employment specifying details such as salary, entitlement to annual leave, sick leave etc. within eight weeks of beginning your employment.
For locums who are self employed, the terms of the contract will be those agreed with the law firm or in house legal department. The usual range of employment rights protecting salaried employees will not apply.
As a locum on a self-employed basis you need to be aware that it is highly likely at some stage in your locum career a firm will dispense of your services at extremely short notice – this can be as short as a few hours. This is after all the main purpose of employers using locums and temporary staff – flexibility.
You will need to negotiate your terms with the employer. We have a template that our signed up locums can use to agree terms if required, although it very often is just a case of agreeing hours, confirming the hourly rate already arranged and establishing exactly what work is going to be dealt with.
Q: How, when and what will I be paid for my locum services?
Locums are paid directly by the hiring law firm or in house legal department. Interim Lawyers do not employ locums directly.
This is why the majority of the locums working through Interim Lawyers are self-employed. Self-employment is very easy to set up. It involves a telephone call to the HMRC to notify them of your intention. After this, you simply have to issue an invoice for the work you have completed.
Payment is on a weekly basis unless agreed otherwise. You issue an invoice to the law firm or in house legal department who ought to pay you within 2-3 working days.
Most firms pay by cheque or via BACS (Bank Automated Clearing System) directly to your bank or building society account. It is important to use the services of a suitably experienced accountant when becoming self-employed. You need to be aware of the expenses that can be put against your income in order to reduce your tax liability etc…
The payment levels depend very much on the assignment and are almost always agreed before we pass you through to speak directly to our clients. See our hourly rates article online for details of typical amounts paid. We update this regularly.
Q: Will I get any travelling allowance?
A: We do not pay our locums anything and this includes expenses. It is quite rare to find law firms and in house legal departments prepared to pay expenses or a contribution towards them. Usually the hourly rate agreed is considered to be the overall amount payable.
However there is no harm in asking before you start an assignment. If you want to include mileage or other expenses in your rate we can negotiate this with the employer before you start. It is rare for this to happen and may also affect your potential chances of securing a booking.
For most assignments in popular areas, eg London, we have a good number of locums available for the majority of the year to choose from. For these posts we do not recommend requesting mileage or other expenses. However there are some assignments where you are more likely to get a favourable response.
Some employers may actually provide overnight accommodation as part of the package. Some sole practitioners will offer you the use of their house whilst they go on holiday or know a friendly bed and breakfast owner who will do a good rate. We have even worked on assignments off shore where accommodation and flights have been included in the package.
Q: Will working as a locum affect my chance of permanent employment in future?
Quite simply, when the good times were booming pre-2008, and law firms were recruiting permanent staff on high salaries and reasonable work conditions, the vast majority would not touch locum solicitors with a barge pole. We should know. Between 2004 and 2008 we dealt with the grand total of about 3 locum assignments and just short of 1,000 permanent vacancies.
None of the registered locums on our books were ever interviewed for the permanent vacancies, even when there was very little response from our registered permanent candidates.
The usual reason for this is that employers believe locums to be damaged goods – after all, if you have worked as a locum you have experienced the following:
- Being your own boss
- Being paid a higher hourly rate than the employees at a particular firm
Once you have done this, it is hard to go back to being an employee, or so the theory goes.
It is of course perfectly possible to go back and work as a permanent member of staff, and people do on a regular basis, but do not be surprised if employers hold your locum status against you in future years.
If you are locuming out of necessity, this is of course different. Locuming out of necessity is usually done whilst waiting for permanent work to crop up. Firms will still look on suspiciously, but a few weeks is better than nothing after all.
Q: Why should I want to work as a locum?
Working as a locum solicitor can offer flexibility, variety and a change of scenery on a regular basis. Whilst our order books in lean years have not exactly been bulging, a good number of locums have found regular ongoing work and repeat bookings.
Locums are in great demand at certain times of the year in law firms and in house legal departments. There are several reasons for this. Law firms have discovered that employing locums on a short term contract is a cheaper option than taking on permanent members of staff. Firms are also opening for increasingly longer hours, and this means having extra solicitors to cover the working week. As the legal job marketplace gets more flexible law firms are finding themselves with staff who want to work part time or job share, requiring more staff and subsequently more cover for those staff when they are off work. Some areas of the UK face recruitment problems, although these are still fairly rare in the current climate.
Finally, an increasing number of solicitors are getting involved in providing additional services or non-legal services (eg, HR management, ski instructor, nursing home owner etc..) as well as training & lecturing, providing continuing professional development (CPD), all of which may take them away from the office and result in the need for locums.
Q: How many locum legal recruitment agencies should I register my CV with?
As many as you like, but we recommend giving one agency priority over others. This will be the agency you have your primary relationship with and you can become a ‘trusted’ locum. We tend to know before sending out an assignment which of our locums is likely to respond, how long it will take them to respond, and also which one we are likely to go with once they have responded.
We also know that there will be certain locums who will only respond to us if they have already checked with their primary agency to make sure they do not have the same vacancy on their books as well.
This is good practice, because your relationship with the locum recruitment consultant is extremely important for ensuring you get continued assignments flowing your way.
Obviously for assignments in far flung places where there are fewer locums you will get more offerings if you are flexible on travel and this will open doors for you, but for assignments in central London for example we get a very healthy response usually for every assignment coming our way.
Q: I am a solicitor working for a law firm and looking to take on contracts elsewhere – is this possible?
A: Yes. We have a number of solicitors registered with us as locums and contractors who are sole practitioners, work for one firm full time or just about full time yet work for one or more other firms at various times as a contractor or locum. There is no reason why you can’t do this, provided you tell your main employer about the others. I believe it is called ‘moonlighting’ if you don’t have permission, and this is usually covered by your contract of employment!
A typical example is a family solicitor with children panel membership who works in a solicitors firm undertaking privately funded work and not LSC funded family law work. The solicitor has SQM Supervisor status but is not using it with his/her existing firm. Provided your current firm are happy with you working elsewhere, the family solicitor can assign their supervisor status to another practice and work for both law firms. Very common, particularly when LSC rates are so abysmal for legal aid work.
Q: What Areas of Law are in Demand for Locums?
Areas of law in demand are fairly straightforward. It is almost always the case that solicitors firms recruit conveyancers to cover for annual leave, sick leave and maternity leave.
Litigators can be covered for, or so the argument goes. After all if you get in a mess with a litigation file it is easy just to palm it off onto Counsel and let them deal with it.
Residential Conveyancing requires careful management. Anything less than this can result in professional negligence claims. As a result it has always been the case, and probably always will be, that generally residential conveyancing locums are the most in demand.
If you wanted to become a professional locum and work 9 months in every 12, residential conveyancing with the ability to do some light commercial conveyancing would be the place to be.
Areas to avoid, which tend to go up and down like a yo yo, are litigation and corporate commercial. Family law has been a graveyard for some years since the demise of legal aid and a load of redundant family solicitors. Crime has never really existed as a solid area for locums and litigation tends to be too sporadic.
Q: What is the difference between a contractor and a locum?
The use of the term ‘contractor’ tends to describe a situation where a lawyer or solicitor is working on an ongoing basis, usually to deal with excess capacity or a busy period.
The use of the word ‘locum’ tends to be used when referring to a lawyer or solicitor covering for sick leave, maternity cover, replacement cover (during notice periods) or any short term cover.
In the IT industry quite a few skilled employees are used on a contractor basis to deal with specific projects. This does not tend to happen with the legal profession – projects per se do not tend to crop up. It is usually cover for specific incidents or periods of time that is more relevant.
Locums work on a self-employed basis. In other industries contractors work on an employed basis via the employment agency who introduced them. In law firms contractors work on a self-employed basis as well, not usually via agencies unless dealing with a large multinational.
Q: Should I use an umbrella company to get paid?
We don’t think so. In fact we would be glad to publish any reasoning from any umbrella company as to why a locum would want to use an umbrella company to get paid.
Look at the facts. Assuming you do 20 weeks in a year at a rate of £1,000 a week, your annual income is going to be £20,000.
Your tax on this as a self-employed person is going to be negligible. The first £10k’ish is tax free, and the remainder is done at 20%. Your national insurance contributions will be minimal and you can knock off plenty of expenses before getting taxed – speak to an accountant about the expenses to be deducted – best way of doing this is to use a freelancer online.
An umbrella company sets you up as a limited company and handles all your administration.
Gee whizz! What administration? Issuing weekly invoices, submitting an annual self-assessment to HMRC and paying your national insurance and income tax? It is hardly very taxing.
The umbrella company takes a fee from your hard earned locum monies for work you could quite comfortably do yourself.
We have only come across one locum using an umbrella company in a very long time in recruitment. In that instance I don’t think the locum got any benefit at all. Completely pointless.
If anyone knows of a reason to justify the use of one of these companies apart from laziness, please let us know and we’ll publish it in our guide.
Q: What can I do to improve my chances of locum work?
Be prepared to be very, very flexible. For example, if we email you on a Friday afternoon and ask you if you were free to go to Scarborough on the Monday morning, say yes.
If we ask you to cover a 3 month assignment starting in three weeks time working 3 day weeks for 6 weeks in Portsmouth, say yes.
If we then get a lucrative booking on a full time basis for 6 months covering maternity and need a locum, it is likely we are going to put you forward for it.
If you do not want to do locum work please do the following:
- Take a locum booking and then decide you don’t want it 12 hours before it is due to start and after we have done reference checks as well as the employer.
- Um and ah about an assignment 6 miles from your home address before deciding it is too much hassle and besides you have got to pick the kids up from school at 3pm.
- Pitch at a completely unrealistic hourly rate, even though you are on benefits and in dire straits.
All of these things have happened in the last 12 months. We favour locums who favour us. If I send out a vacancy and need 5 days cover urgently in some far flung part of the UK, I will try and make sure I favour the person who covered it for me when we get something in closer to home.
Locums who cannot be flexible and have very specific requirements are quite unlikely to get much work through us.
Q: I have conditions on my practising certificate – can I still work as a locum?
The quick answer to this question is yes, you can. We have had a couple of assignments covered by locums in the past who have conditions on their practising certificate, but this is very rare and opportunities where solicitors firms would be prepared to take you are few and far between.
One of the main issues is trust. Locums are often placed fairly blindly into law firms and the firm is completely dependent on our judgment when sending across a CV.
Every locum on our books is checked out before we send over a CV and we are usually able to determine whether there have been any incidents in your past. We always disclose conditions or previous appearances before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal or any involvement with the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
We appreciate that quite often conditions relate to minor breaches of the Solicitors Rules in respect of accounting procedures and this is why on a couple of occasions we have been able to assist locums with conditions.
If you have conditions on your certificate that relate to issues of alleged dishonesty, serious misconduct or conduct falling below the level required of a solicitor, you are not going to get locum work through us. Naturally we are happy to discuss any conditions with you prior to registration. Please be aware that thanks to a number of websites publishing all former decisions by the SRA (even when they themselves remove them after a certain time) we can usually work out if there have been appearances before the SDT etc..
This is not always the case though and if we do miss someone we do not accept liability if a law firm take a locum through us and subsequently find that the locum had conditions at some point or appeared before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
The same applies for Legal Executives. Although very few appear to ever get hauled before the ILEX disciplinary tribunal we still want to know about it if you have been before the tribunal and also do background checks.
So there we have it, a basic guide to starting out as a locum. I hope it has been useful. If you have any questions or want to comment on the contents please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Fagan, Managing Director of Ten-Percent.co.uk Limited.