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Downsides of Hiring a New Associate for Your Small / Solo Law Firm (and Why You Should Collaborate with a Freelance Lawyer Instead)

By Kristin Tyler
March 19, 2021

If you’re considering hiring a full-time associate at your small law firm, you’re probably concerned about the long-term financial implications. 

You might not be confident that you can commit to paying for salary, benefits, ABA dues, continuing education fees, and other expenses for years on end, especially during your firm’s slow times

You also might be reluctant to invest valuable time in training an associate, given that the effort will have been wasted if your new hire leaves the firm in a few years.

Making such a big commitment comes with several downsides, and it’s one of the key reasons we built LAWCLERK — a freelance lawyer marketplace that offers an accessible, flexible way to get the help you need, when you need it, without paying for overhead and idle time when business is slow. 

In this post, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of hiring a full-time, in-office associate, and then we’ll compare them to the benefits of collaborating with a freelance lawyer, also known as a virtual associate.  

Note: At LAWCLERK, we help connect busy attorneys, primarily solos and small firms, with our nationwide network of over 3,600 freelance lawyers. Our freelance lawyers are there to help you on a per-project basis, at the flat fee price you set. We also offer a Virtual Associate Subscription Program, which can be a great way to work with a dedicated virtual associate for your ongoing needs, rather than the occasional project. Learn more and sign up here.
 

Comparing Full-Time, In-Office Associates vs. Virtual Associates
 

A photo shows a man talking with his hands while sitting at a conference table with another woman.

In this section, we’ll talk about the pros and cons of going the more traditional route and hiring a full-time, in-office associate versus working with a freelance lawyer.
 

Pros of Hiring a Full-Time Associate

As for the benefits of hiring a full-time associate, there’s no doubt about it: an in-house lawyer is great for in-person client meetings and court appearances. 

Having personal interaction at work is nice, too, assuming everyone gets along. It’s great to sit down and chat about cases or take a coffee break together. 
 

Cons of Hiring a Full-Time Associate

Large firms will always have a place for full-time associates, but the legal landscape is changing and many smaller firms in the legal community are finding significant drawbacks to hiring full-time “traditional” associates. 

First of all, small law firms are taking a close look at their overhead expenses, particularly as a result of the pandemic. 

When you take on a new associate, you have to pay them year-round, day in and day out, even when business is slow. You have to pay for their office space, laptop, health insurance, and many other overhead expenses

In fact, we’ve heard from too many lawyers that they haven't even been able to pay themselves at times over the past year because they’ve needed to make sure they can pay their associates first.

In addition, full-time associates present the risk of turnover, because all too often the associate you train will eventually leave (and perhaps become your competitor someday).
 

Pros of Working with Freelance Lawyers 

Here at LAWCLERK, we help busy solo attorneys and small law firms in all different practice areas connect with our talented network of more than 3,600 freelance lawyers. Here are the top six benefits hiring attorneys get from working with us.
 

1. Your Small Law Firm Can Be More Profitable

One of the biggest questions we get is, Can you make money with outsourcing?” 

The answer is a resounding yes

The ethics rules, opinions, and case law say that an attorney may bill the time of a freelance lawyer to their client at a reasonable market rate. So while many attorneys view outsourcing as a cost in their practice, the reality is that it’s a revenue center. 

To demonstrate, here’s an example with some simple math. Say you have a motion for summary judgment that’s due soon. You don’t have time to do it yourself, so you connect with a freelance lawyer who agrees to do the work for a flat fee of $1,000. 

They will provide you a timecard, which is automatically required through LAWCLERK. The freelancer reports they worked 8.5 hours on the project, and you determine based on their credentials and the type of case that a reasonable market rate for a billable hour is $200. This means that you could bill the client for the freelancer’s time at 8.5 hours times $200, which is $1700. 

Keep in mind, you paid the freelancer $1000, so this arrangement is generating $700 in profit for your firm.

Now... what if you could replicate this on different types of work every week and every month? That can generate a significant amount of additional income into your firm, and it will free up your time to do more valuable work, like being in court or meeting with new clients. 

It’s a win all the way around, especially when you find great freelancers with whom you can collaborate time and time again.

Note: Our freelance lawyers are there to help you on a per-project basis, at the flat fee price you set. But we also offer a Virtual Associate Subscription Program, which can be a great way to work with a dedicated virtual associate for your ongoing needs, rather than the occasional project. Learn more about our Virtual Associate Subscription Program here.
 

2. Your Small Law Firm Can Benefit from Specialized Expertise 

When you’re faced with a particularly complex or challenging issue that’s outside your area of expertise, hiring a qualified freelance attorney is an ideal way to gain additional insights and supplement your firm’s in-house capabilities.

For example, one of our clients, a nationally renowned expert with 40 years of experience in criminal defense and First Amendment law, needed help with a portion of a writ that his in-house team was preparing for the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Specifically, the team needed help with just one section that covered the principle of stare decisis, because it was outside their area of expertise, and they reached out to us for help. We connected them with an attorney who had deep expertise on the topic, and they agreed to work together. 

Over the course of a weekend, the freelance attorney dug into the case and presented the in-house team with strategies that they wouldn’t have been able to consider, given they weren’t well-versed on this one particular issue. The freelance lawyer “hit it out of the park,” in the client’s words, and enabled the firm to make a much stronger case.
 

3. Flexible Staffing

Smaller firms, particularly firms that focus on trial work, for instance, or that deal with a substantial amount of seasonal immigration work, need a lot of help at certain times of the year and then they experience lulls at other times. 

During those lulls, associates sit idly by and don’t generate as much revenue for the firm, but they still have salary and overhead expenses tied to them.

This problem is avoided if you hire freelance attorneys on a per-project basis, since they don’t have a salary and overhead expenses, and you only pay them when they’re actually doing work. 

For example, one of our clients was primarily doing estate planning work, but over time he saw a growing need to help his clients, many of whom were immigrants, with immigration matters. 

He wanted to be their “go-to” attorney, so he was committed to doing the work to learn that practice area, but at first he needed help from other lawyers who had deeper knowledge. 

He didn't want to hire a full-time associate just to do the immigration work; he wanted to be able to collaborate with a freelance lawyer as those needs arose from time to time

For that lawyer, being able to collaborate and hire freelance immigration lawyers on a case-by-case basis was a great way to achieve the staffing flexibility he needed to build his own expertise and gradually grow his firm.
 

4. Alternative Fee Structures

We hear more and more lawyers saying that the legal market is changing and the billable hour concept isn’t working for them anymore. 

Clients don’t like it, lawyers don’t like it, and law firm owners want to find different ways to bill clients. They want to offer flat fees or hybrid fees, and they want to be more competitive when it comes to their fee structure.

Working with freelancers can be a great solution because many freelance lawyers are already working on a flat-fee basis. If you’re trying to build flat fees into your pricing model, collaborating with freelance lawyers who regularly work within that structure can help you be more profitable and more competitive.
 

5. Be More Competitive with Lower Fees

Working with freelancers is a great way to keep your costs low. As we touched on earlier, you’re only paying for the help you need, when you need it, so your overhead is much lower. 

You can pass those savings on to your clients, charging them less while maintaining your profitability. That gives you a distinct competitive advantage compared to firms that have to charge clients to cover the high overhead costs of full-time associates. 

Note: For more info on how to reduce law firm overhead, see our article: 4 Effective Ways to Reduce Law Firm Overhead

6. Better Work-Life Well-Being

Over the course of your legal career, there will be times when your work-life is very demanding — requiring more of your energy and attention — and other times when you need to focus on your personal life and spend more time with your family.

Having the ability to tap into the time and talent of freelance lawyers when you need them can be a great solution to help you achieve a better work-life well-being and reduce stress.

Note: At LAWCLERK, we help connect busy attorneys, primarily solos and small firms, with our nationwide network of over 3,600 freelance lawyers. Our freelance lawyers are there to help you on a per-project basis, at the flat fee price you set. We also offer a Virtual Associate Subscription Program, which can be a great way to work with a dedicated virtual associate for your ongoing needs, rather than the occasional project. Learn more and sign up here.

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