The good news – being a freelance lawyer is now mainstream and entirely flexible. You can choose whether you want to be a part-time virtual associate for one or more firms, a full-time virtual associate, build your own freelancing business serving multiple attorneys, or pick-up short-term project work. Because you can choose exactly how much you work, for whom you work, and what you are paid, being a freelance attorney is the perfect lifestyle for a growing number of attorneys.
And, everyone from AmLaw 100 firms to solo practitioners are now seeking talented freelance lawyers. This means that an expanding cornucopia of freelance work awaits lawyers from all quarters, which is increasing in size and scope year over year. In fact, the legal consulting firm of Altman Weil in its 2020 “Law Firms in Transition“ survey found:
- The majority of firms surveyed foresee that movement toward use of contract lawyers is here to stay.
- Part-time lawyers also enjoy a rosy outlook, with 68% of the surveyed firms seeing their increased use as here to stay (a mere 6% disagree).
- Nearly half of the surveyed firms view outsourcing legal work as a lasting transformation.
- The survey also found that the traditional associate model is under attack by clients, forcing firms to explore alternative models, such as using freelance lawyers.
What does the career path of a freelance lawyer look like?
There is not one career path. There are not ten career paths. This is because attorneys are developing freelance practices for a variety of reasons with unique objectives. Some attorneys are seeking an improved work-life balance with a cap of hours. Some are seeking to supplement their income with project work while they build their solo practice. Many attorneys love to write, but don’t want to deal with clients and court and the freelance career allows them to enjoy the intellectual practice of law without the stress of client management. Others are caring for children or aging parents and are looking to work a few hours on nights and weekends. Still others are retired and want to work in the winter and golf in the summer. The wisest of us have discovered that they can have a freelance career from a tropical beach.
The brilliance of freelancing is that you can make it whatever you like, both in terms of time and payment. Some freelance lawyers prefer to work for a single attorney or possibly multiple attorneys for a set number of hours a month. This is a virtual associate model and provides reoccurring pay, but also requires a commitment of a set number of hours on a consistent basis.
Other freelance lawyers prefer the ultimate flexibility of working on a project-by-project basis. For instance, they may be hired to prepare a motion for summary judgment or a lease or a trademark application and are paid for that single project. These projects can also be longer-term projects, like assisting with an M&A transaction or an e-discovery document review project that may take weeks or months.
The punchline is that as a freelance attorney, you get to decide exactly how much you want to work and whether you prefer reoccurring work or to work on a project basis.
You also get to choose whether you develop your own freelancing business, complete with a website and marketing, whether you seek more periodic contract work from collogues and by word of mouth, or whether you provide your freelance services through online freelancing platforms like LAWCLERK (offering both project and virtual associate work). And, you can do any combination of these.
Find your niche and excel as a freelance attorney
The business of law is becoming ever more specialized. Clients no longer hire one attorney for all of their legal matters. They hire the attorney that has experience and training in a specific area. And these attorneys in turn hire freelance lawyers that have the specialized knowledge, experience, and training that their clients expect of them. This is why it is important to find your niche.
So, hone in on the practice areas in which you excel and your freelance legal career will bear greater fruit. Market these areas. Don’t be afraid to tout your experience, your knowledge, and your skill. As you develop a reputation as having an expertise in an area of law or a type of work, you can charge more for your time and make more money.
To this end, try to avoid diluting your brand by taking work that is not in your core practice area. Stretching to take on work can result in subpar product, reduced pay, and reputational damage. As the saying goes – a jack of all trades is a master of none.
And, while it is obvious, it is worth saying. If you are doing work you like and you are good at, you will find more enjoyment in your freelance career. So, avoid spending time in areas you dislike, have no experience, or simply have no interest. Whether it be document review or complex tax work, being yourself and doing what you are best at is key to finding freelance fulfillment.
The Pros and Cons of Freelance Lawyering
- Freelancers craft their own schedule. Perhaps the greatest benefit of a freelance career is the ability to control your own schedule. Many prioritize time with friends and family, their other business, or parenthood over working full time. Others hunger to barrel forward full steam ahead, damn the long hours. The power to decide rests entirely in the freelancer’s hands—flexibility that lawyers are unlikely to find in the traditional firm.
- Freelancers can work from anywhere. Say goodbye to face time and your daily commute. If working at home in your jammies or your favorite foreign land is your dream job, you have struck gold. And since you are practically paying rent at the coffee house already, it may as well be your office. LAWCLERK has full time freelancers who work from a beach in Hawaii, a kitchen in Helena, Montana, a villa in Italy, a dairy farm outside of Pikeville, Kentucky, and a senior community in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
- Freelancers need to pay extra attention to financial considerations. While working at a firm can be an inflexible grind, it does have the advantage of a regular paycheck, legal research tools, and often attractive health and retirement benefits. As such, before embarking on your freelance career, it is important to consider whether you can obtain these benefits from other sources and the costs. And, just like opening your own law firm, your income will be inconsistent in the beginning so it is important to plan accordingly.
- Do the work you want to do. One of the greatest benefits of freelancing is doing only the work you want. As a freelance lawyer, you no longer have to take whatever work the partner at your firm gives you or whatever client walks in the door. Of course, you have an ethical duty of competency, but other than that, you get to decide what you work on.
- No support staff – a plus and a minus. Whether you hail from big law, a small firm, or anywhere in between, your staffing needs and overhead will drop. A lot. As in, they may disappear. Working remotely is the wave of the present, which that might mean zero support staff and a home office. If your computer skills are less than stellar, you can easily improve them with on-line classes or YouTube’s wealth of free tutorials. And, with the gig-economy in full swing, there is a large talent pool of freelance paralegals and other legal professionals available to help you.
- Find a mentor. Some attorneys have the good fortune of being the protégé of a wise, well-experienced lawyer, while others may not. Those just launching their career sans mentor would do well to find one. Because freelance work generally not does afford ready access to fertile fields of advisers, less experienced attorneys embarking on a freelancer career should expend the extra effort to find a mentor.
- Freelancing means no office chatter. Freelancing means being on your own, and that means the adventure of a lifetime. It is just you, the open road, and a cool breeze in your hair. And deadlines. And excitement! But there can also be loneliness. You will tackle amazing, engrossing projects and meet fascinating attorneys along the way. Opportunities you might never have otherwise seen come in abundance as a freelancer. However, it is also lots of lonely lawyering. If you prefer a traditional office environment, or at least remote meetings with several people, freelancing may be a bit of a surprise. If you are a people person, be prepared to seek out that interaction elsewhere.
How do I become a freelance lawyer?
First, ask yourself this question: Do you want to work? Next, how much do you want to work? As all attorneys know, just like anything else in life, you will only get out of your freelance career what you put into it. So, seize your life and legal career, do the right thing, and get to work.
1. Finding Clients (Hiring Attorneys)
Obviously, you need clients if you want to eat. Legal practice is challenging enough without the added burden of tracking down work. If you want clients, you must go out and get them, which may easier said than done. Your clients will be other attorneys, so adjust strategies accordingly. One place to start is online legal freelance platforms. LAWCLERK provides a steady stream of both project based work as well as opportunities to be a subscription virtual associate. Either is a great way to kick start your freelance legal career, or simply supplement your income while you build up your client base.
Just because you work remotely does not mean you do not need to tell others about the great work you do. Although the business of law is quickly evolving, some things may never change. Freelancers still need to market themselves in some fashion.
Networking remains a key to success. If no one knows who you are and what you do, your freelance legal career may be a brief one. Begin where you live and work. Share your new venture with your colleagues, attend local bar association meetings, and send announcements to your law school classmates. Your target demographic is attorneys, so focus your efforts accordingly.
In 2021, if you are not on at least one professional networking site, you are missing a great opportunity to promote yourself and meet potential clients. The most well-known of these, LinkedIn, has 740 million users as of this writing. Competing sites, such as Xing, are also worth a look.
Seek out and nurture appropriate sources of referral. Talk to other attorneys and take time to get to know them. When you establish real, meaningful connections with others, they will be more likely to send you work and tell their colleagues about you.
Take in some webinars to arm yourself with the latest tools and knowledge for freelance legal professionals. Or create your own presentation to showcase to other attorneys how your specialized talents and knowledge will create value for them and their clients.
3. Administrative Tasks
Few things make your life as an attorney easier than your support staff. If you were unaware of this truism, you soon will be. Freelancing means not only freedom, but also added responsibility. Now, you get to do the mundane daily tasks that make your freelance practice run. Tracking billable time, even for flat fee projects, now falls on your shoulders, and if you like being paid for your efforts, you will need to invoice your clients. No one loves these little chores, and online freelance platforms have taken notice. For instance, LAWCLERK has a built-in, easy-to-use time keeping feature. And invoicing is a non-issue because, as freelancers submit their final work product, payment is tendered to the freelancer.
Outsourcing legal work to freelance legal professionals is nothing new. However, freelancer lawyers, like all practicing lawyers, must still navigate sticky ethical issues. A good place to start is the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which have been adopted in one form or another in all states. Rule 1.1 requires competence. Rule 1.5 addresses the fees that can be charged for legal services and Rule 5.4 restricts fee splitting among lawyers. Rule 1.6 imposes confidentiality requirements. Rules 1.7 through 1.11 address conflicts of interest. And Rules 5.3 and 5.5 prohibit the unauthorized practice of law.
Unless you are working through a platform like LAWCLERK that has solved these ethical considerations for freelance lawyers, it is important to ensure compliance with your state’s rules of professional conduct, which will include things like:
- Ensuring you are barred in the state in which the legal services are being rendered, or that you are working in a paraprofessional capacity.
- Establishing a clear delineation of duties with the hiring attorning, including who is responsible for the attorney-client relationship and services being rendered to the hiring attorney’s client.
- Implementing a mechanism for clearing conflicts for each new project you take on.
- Ensuring that you possess the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the project.
- Setting your fee and ensuring that you are not impermissibly fee splitting.
You also need to consider whether to have malpractice insurance in place. If engaged in the “practice of law” many states require malpractice insurance (and it is a good idea in any event). However, in some circumstances, the freelance lawyer can work under the malpractice policy of the hiring attorney.
The easiest solution is to work through a legal freelancing platform like LAWCLERK that has solved these ethical issues. LAWCLERK’s platform is structured to address these ethical concerns. Freelancers working on a project basis may have no contact with the client, opposing counsel, witnesses, or other persons potentially involved in the matter. Moreover, the hiring attorney must supervise the freelancer and retain full professional responsibility for the work. By design, LAWCLERK prohibits freelancers from rendering legal advice or other legal services to the hiring attorney’s client. For most freelance lawyers, this is exactly what they are looking for. The ability to practice law without having to focus on the business of law. You can learn more about LAWCLERK’s ethical compliance HERE.
Getting Paid and Hourly Rates
The most common and familiar fee arrangements are flat fee and hourly billing. Each has advantages and downsides. With flat fees, the hiring attorney knows what they will pay. The freelancer also knows what they will earn. But what if the project takes much longer than anticipated? Hourly billing may more accurately reflect the work put into and value created by the freelancer, but clients are usually sensitive to ballooning legal bills. We recently wrote a post about freelance lawyer rates HERE.
When setting freelance fees, factors to consider include but are not limited to:
- Experience is a huge component of fee-setting. More seasoned attorneys can set higher rates than new freelancers since, in general, they will be more efficient and have a stronger command of applicable law.
- Your practice area and specialization play a huge role in what you can charge for your services. While general civil litigation is a great skill set to have, specialized freelancers in high demand practice areas will likely be able to charge/find higher fees.
- Be aware of geographic differences. Physically working in low cost rural areas while arbitraging urban centers with higher legal costs is a great way to maximize your income. However, pay attention to project deadlines when scheduling your work. Working multiple times zones away can also cause its own challenges.
- Outside of an established platform, you will need a written fee agreement between you and your hiring attorney client. The rules of professional conduct often require it, and it is simply a best practice to avoid disputes later. LAWCLERK takes care of this for its users, seamlessly connecting freelancers and hiring attorneys. However, we have provided some online resources for your use HERE
Find a Platform
LAWCLERK was created to connect busy attorneys with its nationwide stable of thousands of talented freelance lawyers. Designed specifically to serve solo attorneys and small law firms, LAWCLERK is the only freelance legal marketplace that was designed to allow freelance lawyers to ethically work in all fifty states. Hiring attorneys simply post a project, freelancers apply, and the hiring attorney selects the best candidate. Work on the marketplace is typically done on a project-by-project basis. However, LAWCLERK’s Virtual Associate Subscription Plan allows hiring attorneys to work with a preferred freelancer on a recurring basis for a set number of hours each month.
Find the Right Technology
If you are going to do it, do it right. Technology is your best friend in a modern freelance law practice. Be sure to cover the essentials.
Having ample legal research resources is an absolute must for many freelancers. Lexis-Nexis, Westlaw, and FastCase are readily available options, and hiring attorneys will expect you to have access to at least one for work that is research based. Most state bar associations include FastCase as a free benefit of membership.
Eliminate the back-and-forth of appointment setting with Calendly. Introduced in 2013, Calendly has blossomed into the world’s largest scheduling platform. Set an appointment with one click instead of three or four emails.
Practicing law without practice management software, as a freelancer or otherwise, is an invitation to catastrophe. This software helps lawyers manage many aspects of their practice, and there are several options available. Shop around to find a product that suits you. They are designed to slash costs, enhance productivity, and lead to greater profitability.
An example of such a service is Clio, which includes a suite of features engineered to improve the lives of attorneys. Clio boasts document and case management, online billing, accounting, time tracking, and integration with over 200 popular apps. LAWCLERK is on this list. The integration allows freelancers to effortlessly pair Clio and LAWCLERK, allowing Clio users to operate virtually any function on the LAWCLERK platform.
Freelancers enjoy nearly unparalleled flexibility and control over their professional lives. Now that you are you own boss, put yourself in your hiring attorney’s shoes while you consider some best practices.
- Be responsive. Attorneys are busy people, and this is no different for your future clients. Promptly return emails and phone calls. Directly address the issues presented in your projects. Give your clients the work product that they want and deserve.
- Timely submit those timecards. Even if you are working for a flat fee, you will still need to keep track of your billable hours. The value you are providing isn’t only your work product, it’s your billable hours as well. And if the hiring attorney can’t bill your time for a profit, you haven’t done your job. LAWCLERK has an integrated time-entry system in its platform, which simplifies this task.
- Do not over promise and under deliver. No one appreciates a late submission or substandard work product. If a project is outside of your wheelhouse, it may be best to find something more familiar. Freelancing can be a great way to test out a new practice area, but do not abandon common sense by puffing your way into a project you have no business working on. Do not misrepresent your experience or skill set.
Additional Tips shared with freelancer lawyers working through LAWCLERK’s Virtual Associate Subscription Program
Now is the time to subvert the dominant legal practice paradigms by summarily dismissing these outdated, traditional models in favor of the future. Freelance legal work abounds and is growing. That delivery of legal services is evolving, and doing so quickly, is patently clear. Today, freelancers can practically run their practice from their smart device. With proper preparation and planning, adherence to ethics rules, and good ol’ hard-yet-smart work, freelancers can poise themselves to thrive in today’s modern legal marketplace.