As lawyers evolve to meet changing market demands, freelance lawyers have a new perspective on legal practice as they develop new career goals, and their numbers have grown in the largest U.S. legal markets in recent years.
A freelance lawyer enjoys much greater flexibility and control over his legal practice than most individual practitioners. And since freelance lawyers are independent contractors hired by other lawyers to do legal work based on contract projects, setting up a freelance practice is fairly easy. Taking overflow work as a freelance lawyer is an excellent way to supplement your income even in turbulent times.
Many lawyers in our Lawyerist Insider and Lawyerist Lab communities either regularly hire freelance lawyers as a staffing tool when needed, or occasionally work as freelancers to keep busy during downtime, or both.
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What is a freelance lawyer?
Some confusion arises from the historical understanding of a contract lawyer. As a rule, a contract lawyer is hired by a legal advice center to work on large-scale projects for an hourly wage paid by the agency. In contrast, a freelance lawyer is an experienced lawyer hired directly by another lawyer to work on a particular component of a case or transaction.
As independent contractors, freelance lawyers build their own freelance law firms and are responsible for setting their own hours, finding their own clients, and generating their own income. Freelance lawyers come from all areas of the legal profession, including large law firms, in-house lawyers, government positions, the public sector and private practice. Typically, after five or more years of practicing as a lawyer, freelance lawyers want flexibility in their resumes, which is not available in most traditional legal positions.
The need for a more flexible schedule can arise from a variety of personal and professional situations, including caring for young children or aging parents, starting or growing an individual practice, moving with a spouse who needs to move to work, starting or growing a sideline outside the legal profession. These lawyers are seeking freelance work to continue working as lawyers on their own schedule.
The cornerstone of freelance work is flexibility and control. Freelance lawyers have the freedom to focus on the work that interests them and get jobs done within their own timelines and availability. Most freelance lawyers focus on a niche area and offer their expertise to other lawyers who need help with a related case, transaction, or project. The relationship is symbiotic and based on flexibility – the lawyer occasionally offers work and pay, while the freelance lawyer provides the support and end product as needed.
Basics of your freelance practice
What are the building blocks of freelance legal practice? There is plenty of advice for lawyers who want to set up a one-on-one practice for direct clients. But what does a lawyer who wants to do full-time or part-time freelance really need to get started? The most important considerations to work as a freelance lawyer are:
First, and probably most importantly, a freelance lawyer should have malpractice insurance. Although a freelance lawyer should check that the hiring lawyer has current and sufficient misconduct insurance to cover the project, there is always a possibility that the hiring lawyer’s insurer will seek compensation from a freelance lawyer if a misconduct claim is made is asserted.
Whether or not the freelance lawyer is held liable is a separate question, but no freelance lawyer should risk paying the cost of defending against the misconduct lawsuit. In addition, taking out misconduct insurance increases the reputation of a freelance law firm and shows potential clients (lawyers) that the freelance lawyer is a professional who is willing to do business in the right way. As freelance work is a relatively new field of activity, availability and insurance coverage for freelance lawyers vary.
However, most people are surprised at how affordable it is. Insurers need to have a clear understanding of freelance work, including the areas of activity and the number of billable hours you are expected to work each month. Although it takes time and effort, it is worth taking out misconduct insurance that effectively covers the work of a freelance lawyer.
Written freelance work agreement
Second, a freelance lawyer should have a written agreement. This can be explained and formally updated before the last phone call with the hiring customer as soon as all parties have agreed the terms. The agreement should clearly define the project terms and conditions for everyone involved, including ethical and legal considerations, and protect the interests of both the freelance lawyer and the hiring lawyer. In most cases, a simple agreement with two or three pages is sufficient. The necessary content of the agreement is controversial, but should generally cover the following:
- Scope of the freelance project
- Conflict assessment
- Insurance coverage for misconduct
- Ownership of work products
- Professional responsibility parameters
- Dispute settlement
Depending on the customer, project or schedule, there may be situations in which it is not possible or necessary to get a written agreement about freelance work at the start of the project. If a lawyer is looking for emergency help at the last minute, there may not be time to negotiate an agreement before going to work.
Or maybe the lawyer and freelance lawyer already have a professional relationship and work comfortably without a formal agreement. But even in these situations, it is advantageous for both parties to specify the basic project conditions in an email. Ultimately, it is a good idea to have something in writing regardless of the level of formality.
Third, a freelance lawyer needs technology. This is a necessity, not a suggestion. Technological advances over the past five years have been driving the growth of freelance work – lawyers can work remotely anywhere, anytime. A freelance lawyer needs at least a good laptop with basic software, wireless access to high-speed Internet, and a connection to a printer and scanner.
Communication with hiring lawyers is largely done by phone and email, so a freelance lawyer can rely on both. Invest in a smartphone to provide the best customer service for busy lawyers who outsource their work. Especially for freelance lawyers who work part-time and devote the rest of their time to other professional or personal activities, a smartphone always appears to be available. Or at least mostly. Video conferencing software makes it easy to connect and discuss questions or project status.
Finally, a freelance lawyer needs online access to legal research. Westlaw or Lexis subscriptions are generally too expensive for a freelance lawyer who is just starting out, but there are other cheaper options. Overall, a freelance lawyer with a simple technology suite (laptop with basic software, printer / scanner, smartphone and subscription for legal research) has the tools required to take on projects.
Fourth, a freelance lawyer must have a marketing strategy. The desired end customer – large companies, individual practitioners, internal legal departments or government offices – will shape strategic marketing, but some basic ideas apply to any freelance lawyer.
The two basic marketing tools are a business card and an online presence. Creating a professional business card is incredibly easy and inexpensive thanks to a variety of online printing resources. And if the development of a website is not within the original budget of a freelance lawyer, it is enough to start with a free online profile via LinkedIn or Avvo to build a legitimate and professional online presence.
In addition to marketing tools, networking and recommendations are the main ingredients for marketing freelance work. Since the clients of freelance lawyers are other lawyers, it makes sense for freelance lawyers to constantly meet and maintain relationships with a large number of lawyers. Every network path should be explored to build and maintain positive relationships. If other lawyers and referral partners don't know you are available to work as a freelancer, they don't know if they can pass on opportunities to you.
Any connection to a new lawyer is a potential job opportunity. And as soon as a new customer requests freelance help, the basis for a transfer is created if he goes beyond the project. A satisfied lawyer usually likes to share the name and contact information of a freelancer who does a good job. Word of mouth recommendations are the gold standard in the freelance market – lawyers who need help are more likely to hire a highly recommended and trusted freelancer.
Ultimately, a freelance lawyer’s marketing strategy doesn’t have to be complicated, it requires a business card, online presence, and hard work.
Attorney Freelancer Financial Plan
After all, a freelancer needs a financial plan. Freelance finances are not as complicated as the trust and accounting requirements for individual practitioners and law firms representing direct clients.
The first half of the financial plan for freelance lawyers is the billing structure. Freelance lawyers set their tariffs based on a number of factors, including years of experience, geographic location, and type of business. A freelance lawyer with ten years of experience in a large metropolitan area on shorthand projects will charge more than a freelance lawyer with five years of experience working on document review projects in a remote location.
How the freelance lawyer is billed can take various forms: a straight hourly rate, an hourly rate with an upper limit, a flat rate per project, etc. The key is flexibility, mixed with good business sense. Freelance lawyers need to know when and how to properly bill their work so that they can talk to a potential client safely and ensure that they are paid for their work.
Revenue is collected and maintained in the second half of the freelance financial plan. A freelance lawyer can act as an independent contractor and sole trader, providing lawyers with a social security number for payment and a form at the end of 1099. Of course, a freelance lawyer should understand the advantages and disadvantages of a sole proprietorship and whether a business unit makes sense.
Also, do a first break-even analysis that reconciles the basic cost of running a freelance practice with the required and / or desired profit. As practice grows, break-even analysis should be adjusted when new practice-related equipment is purchased. As with a one-on-one practice, income and work for a freelance lawyer will never be secure. An intelligent freelance financial plan that includes a flexible billing structure and concrete income strategies will keep the freelance lawyer up to date.
With a little organization and foresight, the basic building blocks of a freelance law firm should come into effect. Finding other freelance lawyers can be a great way to support a freelance practice, both for moral support and for gathering advice. Look for groups of freelance lawyers who offer support and inform the larger legal community about the availability of freelance help. There is also a book on freelance legal work, Kimberly Alderman's Freelance Lawyering Manual. The resources available to freelance lawyers will continue to grow along with the growing number of lawyers operating freelance law firms. Due to the requirements of the market and the changing changes in the legal profession, freelance lawyers are here to stay.
This page was taken from content that Emerald Gratz originally wrote for Lawyerist.
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last update May 8, 2020.