JULIA HOLMAN was a qualified solicitor when she started her family in 1979; when she returned to work it was as a freelance advocate. During her time in articles at Simons Muirhead & Allen (now Simons Muirhead & Burton) she remembers two people operating as freelancers; by the time she took it up in the early 1980s, she was not aware of anyone else following the same path.
In 1987, when Jo Cooper launched himself as a freelance, he knew of half a dozen others. Now, there are now some 50 full-time freelance advocates in London alone, with a similar number of part-timers.
Most freelance advocates handle criminal work; a growing number are specialising in areas such as child care or mental health. Jo Cooper's speciality is public order.
The recent increase in freelance activity is due in part to the recession, Ms Holman acknowledges. But in the main, she says, it has happened because principal solicitors (those employing the freelancers) 'relish the option of using highly experienced and professional advocates'.
She does not say, but it is doubtless true, that firms can save money by using outside advocates as and when needed, rather than bear the costs of in-house employment.
From the freelancer's point of view, self-employment offers freedom and flexibility. It lends itself to a part-time option for people with families or, as in Ms Holman's case, other commitments: she works part-time as a deputy stipendiary magistrate.
What draws Jo Cooper to the work is a mixture of freedom and commitment to doing a good job.
'If you work in a practice, you are dealing with a lot of cases at the same time,' he says. 'You want to do 100 per cent for each of them, but in reality it is a question of doing your best and making compromises, which I prefer not to do.
'This way, I concentrate on one case at a time, and it is clear to me whether I have done 100 per cent or not.'
Mr Cooper was articled at Bindman & Partners, which instilled a good working discipline. He turned to a freelance existence immediately after qualifying.
'The freedom I have is important to me. Working for someone else you are seldom your own manager; you have no control over your time, or even access to it,' he says. 'As a freelance I have the space to prepare, and each case is the most important thing in my day. I am not dependent on other people.'
To establish oneself as a freelance needs a 'protective wing to nestle under', Mr Cooper says. 'You need someone with confidence in you who will offer you work you are competent to do and won't trouble you with things beyond your competence.'
Why though, apart from economic considerations, should law firms turn to freelance advocates?
A number of features mean that they are objectively better than the Bar, Mr Cooper believes. They are prepared to see clients at the solicitors' office; to collect and deliver files; they report back the results of cases immediately; they have a face to face relationship with the principal solicitors and - a big advantage - they physically have the principal solicitor's files and therefore access to all the material on the case. Barristers receive written instructions with only a selection of relevant material, Mr Cooper says.
Another important consideration is that Mr Cooper, Ms Holman and their colleagues are dedicated magistrates' court advocates. 'We don't fill in with other work and we don't think, like most barristers, that there is better work to be done elsewhere, that is, in the Crown Court,' Mr Cooper says. 'It is, in a way, a glass ceiling on our advocacy.
'We are also more likely to turn up when we promise to - magistrates' court trials work on fixed dates, whereas Crown Courts have rolling lists.'
Ms Holman agrees. 'We are serious magistrates' court advocates,' she says. 'The Bar ditches the magistrates' court for Crown Court work.'
Some freelance solicitor advocates have banded together in chambers: Central Booking and Butlers Wharf Chambers in London, others in towns including Bristol and Southampton.
Julia Holman has never worked through chambers. 'It is not my style,' she says.' The way my practice works best is in close association with a small number of solicitors. I send a sheet of my movements to 15 firms; maybe five book me on a regular basis,' she says.
Ms Holman is on the committee of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association and the chair of its freelancers sub-committee. A new payment structure has recently been agreed to meet the concern of principal solicitors that they would be faced with losses following the introduction this month of standard fees.
The other hot issue for advocates - not just freelancers - is that of rights of audience (the right for solicitors to appear in the higher courts). The Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee has denied increased rights of audience to employed solicitors and those in the Crown Prosecution Service. The Law Society, maintaining the principle of 'one profession', has re-submitted its application for solicitors' rights of audience to the senior judges - the next stage in the process under the Courts and Legal Services legislation.
The effect of this determination to keep to the one profession rule, says Mr Cooper, has merely delayed the day when any solicitor can plead in a Crown Court jury trial. 'We have the right to do appeals and bail applications in the Crown Court,' he says. Freelance advocates are still to some extent an oddity of the system, exemplified by the lack of a box to tick on the practising certificate renewal form, although that is set to change shortly.
In bureaucratic terms, however, the freelancer's life is relatively uncomplicated. He or she holds no clients' money and is therefore not obliged to provide accounts.
'I have a simple diary and invoicing system,' Jo Cooper says. 'My overheads consist only of a library and a fax machine.' His office is a room in his north London flat, complete with roof garden and views over the capital.
'It's a very clean, simple way of providing an advocacy service, with space in which to do it well.'
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