It can be challenging to cultivate your legal skills and career when you decide to launch an independent path as a freelance lawyer right out of law school after you pass the bar exam. When you work for a law firm, the firm will give you assignments, feedback and will hopefully direct your professional development via mentorship. This gives you professional experience that recruiters will want to see if you need to go elsewhere. As a contract attorney, you need to build your own professional experience. LAWCLERK can be an important tool for doing just that.
I know all too well how challenging this can be. I started a business soon after I was admitted to the bar handling matters for other attorneys. Most of those matters were court appearances. While it sounds impressive to say I immediately started a business, the fact is, I didn’t have a choice – I didn’t have a job! I knew that big law was not an ideal career path for me as I didn’t want to pursue corporate law or go in-house. I decided that handling court appearances would expose me to a wide variety of practice areas to build up my legal resume. What started as a single Craigslist ad snowballed into a full-time business. When the pandemic shut down courthouses, I was required to shift gears to focus on written projects and become a freelance writer for other attorneys. Step-by-step, LAWCLERK has been very helpful to me as I continue to build my practice and improve my career trajectory. I will share with you some tips I have learned over the years, both from working with LAWCLERK and from running my own contract attorney business.
1. Be Responsive: To grow your business as a freelance attorney, you need to have a great reputation with your clients. That starts with being responsive. Remember to regularly check your email, at least during business hours, and try not to send phone calls to voicemail unless you have to. If you are not responsive, you might not get repeat work in the future. I try to respond to a request to do a contract attorney job as soon as I get it, and to at least immediately acknowledge receipt of an email even if I need to do some research for a more detailed reply. This will also help you build a list of attorney clients to serve as references if you are ever asked for them. And don’t forget, you want to do your best work to gain top ratings on LAWCLERK!
2. Branch Out: I am licensed only in New York. Through LAWCLERK, I have completed projects as a freelance lawyer aka “Lawclerk” for attorneys and law firms all over the country. Curious how the ethics rules work? Check out this blog. Expanding your geographic scope as a freelancer will increase the number of projects you complete, which will make your legal resume look more impressive. In addition, if you are planning on moving to and becoming licensed in another state, potential employers will like to see that you have work experience handling matters from that state. Thanks to LAWCLERK, if I decide to move, I have writing samples for several states!
3. Try Something New: If you see something that is a bit outside your practice area posted in the LAWCLERK marketplace, consider taking it on! From a practice that consisted of mainly personal injury and debt collection matters, I have expanded to handling, among other things, projects involving criminal matters and immigration. If you are trying to build your legal resume, you want to be able to show legal experience in a wide variety of practice areas. If you are trying to build your own business as a contract attorney, you want to be able to offer legal services in as many practice areas as possible. I’ve seen a huge demand for freelance work on LAWCLERK involving family law, bankruptcy, real estate, and intellectual property in addition to the areas I already mentioned.
Likewise, sometimes, you might see a Project on LAWCLERK that’s in your practice area, but it’s still something you haven’t done before. Take the Project on! As a contract attorney, you need to get a wide variety of legal work experience. The way to do that is to take on projects involving a wide variety of legal issues. On LAWCLERK, your client (the hiring attorney) will often have templates involving similar kinds of work to help get you started on the right path. Plus, you can benefit from mentorship form the attorney you are working with.
4. Take Advantage of Free Legal Research Tools: You might be intimidated from taking on a Project because your Lexis or Westlaw subscription only includes, for example, California courts. Don’t let that dissuade you! There are many free resources out there for legal research. For example, I make extensive use of Google Scholar for researching case law. Likewise, for immigration matters, the Board of Immigration Appeals maintains a topical list of decisions. Many state bars (and the ABA) offer member benefit programs that include legal research tools for free or for very affordable rates. For example, Fastcase offers powerful research tools and partners with over 50 national, state and county bar associations as a member benefit. The more tools you have in your toolbox as a freelance writer – the better!
5. Have Flexible Hours: If you shut down at 5pm your time, you might consider changing that in order to be able to take on a greater variety of projects. I am based in New York. I recently was involved, through LAWCLERK, in an ongoing subscription-based project involving submitting claims for damages from wildfires in California. Of course, most of the claimants were California residents and operate on Pacific time. This required me to be flexible with the times I was available for phone calls (7pm New York time is 4pm California time). The practice of law is most often not a 9 am to 5 pm job.
6. Communicate: One of the keys to having a satisfied client – whether they are a lay client or another attorney – is communication. If any part of the Project details is confusing or unclear, you need to tell the client as soon as possible, and perhaps schedule a phone call or Zoom meeting to hash things out in “real-time.” It’s amazing what can be accomplished with a quick conversation. If you are not sure how to proceed with a Project, or if there is some issue with the Project, again, tell the client immediately. You need to take on a problem-solving mindset when communicating with your client. Try to offer your own take on the matter: For example, instead of just asking them what something means, say “I think this means X – is that correct?” as a springboard to resolving the issue. If you take action to try and resolve questions and save the attorney time/work, it will undoubtedly earn you repeat business.
When it comes to communication, some of the best practices I have used include things like asking the attorney what is their preferred method of communication. Some attorneys I work with live on email so we just communicate via email. Other attorneys want to use the LAWCLERK messaging feature or just want to speak by phone. Whatever the attorney prefers – accommodate their preference because they are your client.
Another great way to enhance communications when working with another attorney in a remote capacity is to schedule regular status meetings. This is especially helpful if you are working on larger, ongoing projects or cases. Set a regular meeting, calendar it, and make it happen. These status meetings don’t need to be long – they just need to be a dedicated time you touch base to make sure the work is still on track. These can be a great opportunity for you to get legal advice and practical insight on how to advance your legal career from a more seasoned attorney.
7. Be on Time: It shouldn’t need to be said, but some people need to hear it: Turn in your work by the deadline. Clients want contract attorneys who are detail-oriented. One of the most important details is the Project deadline! If something will prevent you from turning in the Project on time, let your client know immediately. I would even say that, if your project is not complete by the deadline, you should turn in what you have started on in order to give the client something.
8. Ask Questions: If you have questions about any part of a project, ask your client! For example, I will sometimes have a Project on LAWCLERK, but no documents have been uploaded. It is difficult to, for example, respond to a summary judgment motion without even a caption! When this happens, I will immediately ask the client to please upload the documents. If I don’t get a response by the next day, I will call that morning. This also protects me – if nothing is ultimately uploaded (which I have never had happen) that I have documented that I attempted to get the necessary information but was unable.
9. List Your Contract Attorney Work on Your Resume: Many freelance or contract attorneys are unsure how to list their experience on their resume or LinkedIn profile. They are not traditionally employed as they work for themselves – and numerous attorneys – in a freelance capacity. I would recommend listing yourself as an “independent contract attorney” then under the experience section, describe the sort of matters you handle. Perhaps also mention the “back office” work you do, for example, billing clients. The idea is to communicate that you have been continually working and to avoid the appearance of resume gaps. If you are a freelance attorney, you are self-employed, not unemployed, and also not “between jobs.” You run your own business every bit as much as if you were a traditional solo practitioner, and your resume should reflect that.
10. Always be Improving Your Skill Set: Be on the lookout for classes and other opportunities to learn more about different practice areas. Check out websites that have listings of free classes you can take in a variety of practice areas. Also check with your local bar association. You can fulfill your CLE obligations at the same time as you learn about a new practice area. That is a productive use of your time!
There are a growing number of legal podcasts that also provide valuable information for free. If you want to check out a list of excellent podcasts, give this article a read.
Another excellent way to try something new and enhance your skillset is to volunteer your time to work on pro bono cases. Helping those less fortunate is a great way for those of us in the legal profession to not only give back but to also gain valuable experience in a variety of cases.
11. Be Easy to Find: I started my contract attorney business with a Craigslist ad. But I did not stop there. I put up a website. I also made sure to attend bar association events so people would know about me. I even judged law students in mock trial competitions – which was fun, and a great way to make contacts! You might want to consider regularly posting to social media platforms such a LinkedIn. As a contract attorney, you cannot rely on a law firm to handling marketing for you – you must market yourself.
12. Always Keep Trying: I did not have a job when I passed the bar. Instead of doing nothing, I put up a Craigslist ad offering court appearances. When the courts closed, that business dried up. So, I did some research on other opportunities for contract attorneys and found LAWCLERK. As a contract attorney, you need to always keep your eye out for new kinds of business opportunities. Even if you don’t want to be a contract attorney for the rest of your career, it will help your job search to have a continuous work history and gain valuable experience through freelancing.
Do you want to build your own dream job as a freelance lawyer? The good news is that thanks to the power of a law degree and companies like LAWCLERK it is easier to do than you may think. Whether you want to work full-time or part-time, you can join the growing number of attorney freelancers and design your own ideal career path. Who knows, maybe you can even maintain the elusive work-life balance many lawyers only dream of. If I can do it, so can you.
Daniel R. Marx is an attorney in New York. He has completed over 125 Projects on LAWCLERK with a 100% met or exceeded rating. In addition, he works as a Virtual Associate for ongoing subscription-based work with multiple attorneys across the country.