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Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

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Making "The Freelance Mentality" Work For Your Firm

What we've noted for years about baseball and other sports is now true of the workplace: the prevalence of the "freelance mentality." When we were very young, our sports heros, our favorites, and our "enemies" tended to stay playing side by side for years. We cheered essentially the same teams for years, shared their victories and heartbreaks, lived their ups and downs.

A parallel situation occurred in the workplace. People joined an organization with a long-term outlook. When employers invested in their employees, they expected them to be there for years and to use their new and improved skills for the firm's benefit as well as their own. Now it seems the rule rather than the exception that neither employer nor employee - even partners in professional firms - feel long-term loyalty to the firm or that loyalty should be at the core of the relationship. While this is even more true of the younger generations, now almost everyone takes the headhunter's call, whether or not they are actively looking.


It is natural for firms to rue the decline of loyalty. However, before condemning the freelance mentality, let's look at it's strong points:

  • Freelancers usually show a great deal of initiative. They need to make things happen for themselves and for their (temporary) employers.
  • They are largely self -sufficient, and they can take hold of a project and run with it.
  • They need to keep working on maximizing and honing their talent in order to sell themselves, so they tend to be perpetual learners.
  • They know they need to perform at a high level in order to get the next project.
  • They have to develop a business sense.
  • They learn to be flexible. Usually they are aiming for flexibility in their lives.
  • The sense of working in one's own interest tends to be a great motivator.

A freelance mentality does not mean lack of commitment to the task at hand while the individual is there. Often, quite the opposite.

The downsides to the freelance mentality for the organization are long-term uncertainty as to who will be on the team ready to fulfill any need, whether the individual will put the organization's long-term objectives first, as well as the need to build rapport and orient new arrivals to the particular ways the firm does things and minimize disruption and morale problems when people leave.

The award winning magazine Fast Company has been both praised to the skies and accused of being subversive to our culture, but, in fact, it is simply observing the trends and giving enlightenment and advice to people who already have adopted or aspire to the freelance mentality.
Further, it reports on ways to take the positive aspects of that way of thinking and use them to restructure the workplace for more productivity and satisfaction - not only for the twenty-and thirty-somethings but for anyone of any age in the firm who seeks both stimulating, challenging work and a desirable quality of life. Organizations should be paying close attention; they can learn and change for the better.


The goal and the challenge is to maintain the positive aspects of the freelance mentality while taking steps to build continuing loyalty and commitment to the organization and to clients in an environment of mutual trust. Clients are even more concerned about turnover than fans are about the free agency of favorites on their sports teams.

It would seem that the objective would be to permit professionals to have a sense of "ownership", whether they are actual owners or not, by giving them a say in how things are done, not micro-managing, and rewarding them based on their total contribution to the well-being of the firm. They want to feel part of something that includes their goals, not just management's goals.

Some important points to ponder come from a book by Dale Dauten called The Gifted Boss: How to Find, Create and Keep Great Employees. He says that great employees and gifted bosses want the same thing from the workplace: a chance, a change, and freedom from management, mediocrity and morons. The gifted boss provides a "magnetic" workplace, that is, an exceptional environment and an opportunity to be exceptional. They want to be tested and will show their bosses the possibilities. To provide that "exceptional environment," it is important to figure out what individuals want from their lives, and that goes beyond money.

Most of the professionals thought to have a freelance mentality are Generation Xers (associates, young partners, contract attorneys) and the younger Baby Boomers. For some insights on how to make the most of their talent by creating an environment that motivates them to show their best, look at the typical characteristics of Generation X:

  • Self-reliance and skepticism (like traditionally-trained lawyers).
  • Project-orientation. Get it done, celebrate, have fun.
  • Abhor office politics.
  • Want to learn, grow in their careers.
  • Want prompt, thoughtful feedback.
  • Want a life outside of work.
  • Want to build something; a sense of adventure.
  • Want an opportunity to prove themselves and to be rewarded on merit.
  • Don't respect an organization that excludes others based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or makes people conform.

Many people recently and now entering the workforce look at their employers as clients or teachers and they are willing to move wherever they can find mentors and training, knowing they can only rely on their own capabilities. In fact they are loyal to their craft and their careers, not necessarily to their jobs. They expect to find fulfilling work or to treat it like "just a job" and keep their eyes open for another opportunity. They have learned to be suspicious of all institutions and relationships, especially those that would try to run their lives. An organization gains trust by making them feel their opinions, ideas and work matter.

Generation Xers are being advised to demonstrate interest in firm goals beyond their own job and that if they make themselves a valuable part of the team, they'll be treated as such. But firm leaders and management will have to meet them halfway to gain their allegiance. They tend to have more allegiance to individual people they respect than the organization as a whole.

Some examples of actions to improve loyalty: A 40-year-old manager decided to help employees improve work and personal life balance. Each staff member was asked to list three business goals and three personal life goals, and she held herself accountable for the employees not pursuing and reaching the goals. A small law firm founder did the same with his associates and staff, meeting quarterly to discuss progress on goals and how he could help them reach their goals. (His consultant got him to write down his own work and life goals, and she reviews his progress with him.)

Other firm managers have offered flexible hours and autonomy in making business transactions in lieu of higher salaries and found this works at least for some period of time because it satisfied the desire for new business challenges and a life outside work. If people are happy with their work and work environment, they will not leave for more money alone (unless it is very significantly more.) We regularly see examples demonstrating that throwing more money at desirable young lawyers is not the solution and is only a short-term fix, not the path to long-term loyalty.


What of the visible flight to dot-com companies? Attorneys as well as business executives are making those moves at often greatly reduced compensation, at least in the short term, in search of adventure and the opportunity to build something, which they rarely have in a law firm except as founders and leaders. Even business schools and more traditional companies are offering leaves of absences so that students and employees can spend some time at Internet companies or pursuing individual interests. They've seen the handwriting on the wall.

Although the attraction of dot-com opportunities has made a big media splash and constitutes what passes for titillating gossip these days, these moves can carry considerable risk. And remember most lawyers tend to be risk averse. If there is a trend toward willingness to take risk (educated risk), that is good news. So how can firms take advantage of the freelance mentality of today's lawyers (especially young lawyers) for mutual benefit?

First, firm management at various levels - firmwide, practice group heads, local office managers, committee chairs - need to understand the life and career objectives of the younger lawyers. That may not be intuitive or be derived from projecting their own goals and experiences, as there are overall generational differences. These are, perhaps, more distinct than those between generations in the past, especially when related to the workplace. Here are some guidelines:

  • People are looking for a sense of "community" at work since they spend so much time there and have little or no time for traditional community activities. Encourage and support fun, group activities as a core part of firm culture. Let the young lawyers take charge. Firms that carry on like a collection of fiefdoms with an internally competitive culture will experience large turnover.
  • Since regular, timely feedback is a high priority for young lawyers, make it a high priority with an appropriate reward system for the more senior attorneys who manage them. Train those attorneys in giving candid, meaningful and effective evaluations. The young attorneys want to learn how to do things and be self-sufficient. If you don't help them, they'll go somewhere that they think will.
  • Self-sufficient, opportunity seekers want recognition based on the merit of their accomplishments, not on a lock-step, delayed gratification system. Spell out the incentive system in advance, giving merit-based bonuses and non-monetary perks such as time and opportunity for training, plum assignments, significant roles in seeking firm cultural change. Be willing to listen to and test their ideas. Many will be unworkable (as is true of any group's) but a few good, innovative ideas implemented can propel the firm ahead of the competition.
  • Many young professionals abhor time-based systems and processes requiring things to be done in a particular place. Focus on managing goals and deadlines, not time. Let them figure out how to get the job done on time, managing their own use of time among work product, business development and non-billable activities, and personal life. They may have a different mental process for reaching work solutions, and it is not necessarily inferior to that of their supervisors.
  • Even more than the more experienced lawyers, the younger ones tend to be put off by office politics and the sapping of time and emotional energy it takes from other things they consider more important. Be transparent in both official and informal messages. Minimize office politics and coach the young lawyers through the minefields and dynamics of getting things done.
  • Similar to the attraction of home-based businesses, young professionals have a need and desire to merge their work and personal lives. Rather than sharply differentiating the work-and personal selves, build in flexibility for taking care of the responsibilities of both - as long as work is done well and on time and clients are happy.
  • Young professionals want more opportunity for self-expression and authenticity in their work. Casual dress, skits, using their talents for charitable purposes, not being expected to fit into a mold traditionally defined as "professional" and living up to someone else's definition of success - these are conducive to a desirable work environment and will help to make people stay. Ask for their "fresh" viewpoints on work and work environment and give them a fair hearing.

If the core mission of people with a freelance mentality is "to grow my life and a career and serve our client," what does the firm contract back? Numerous studies including those by human resource and benefits firms Hewitt Associates and Watson Wyatt Worldwide as well as the Hudson Institute and Walker Information have found that trust, care and concern, respect and fair treatment are the essential ingredients for building loyalty and obtaining commitment. Too many firms and individual managers don't give credence to this "soft" side, and thereby open the door to acceptance of headhunters calls by their colleagues.

So first, the more senior attorneys need to infuse the culture with the belief that taking extra time to show care, respect and provide opportunities to build trust is well worth their precious time. Ask how people are doing. Give constructive tips and critiques. Be flexible in times of personal emergencies. Show concern for how people feel. And very importantly, discuss individual attorney's goals with them and demonstrate how the firm is developing them for the long term.

Retention is a complex subject and there may be no perfect solution given personal objectives and varying definitions of "success." Following the guidelines laid out here will at least extend the time of commitment to the firm, make it a happier place to be and consequently improve productivity and dedicated service to clients.


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2000.

This article appeared in the New York Law Journal, March 21, 2000