Freelancing for a Solo Practitioner

Many people writing for this site and reading this site have their own solo practice. Others, like me, don’t have the time to start their own law firm, but still want the flexibility of a solo practice, so we do the next best thing: freelance for a solo practitioner. Being an independent contractor is pretty much a win-win for everyone. You get to pick up some extra work and the solo practitioner gets to lighten their workload while paying you a fraction of what they charge the client (similar to what law-firms with partners and associates).

How to find a freelance gig

The easiest way to find freelance work for a solo practitioner is to ask around. Ask friends, family, fellow lawyers. Ask people on your document review project. Use social networking sites like Linked In and Facebook. The key word is network! Once you find yourself a freelance gig, consider the following issues that you may face:

The Solo Practitioner May Assume You Know Everything

I do freelance work for someone who has his own firm specializing in sports and entertainment law. He is very well respected and has been practicing for over 30 year so for him, most of this work is by rote. However, veterans like this often forget that you do not possess the same wealth of experience and may have questions about an assignment, lots of questions. Unfortunately, there isn’t a huge database of documents to look to, so the solo practitioner may be the only guide that you have.

The process of picking up freelance work from a solo practitioner can sometimes be a bit informal. Showing up at their office or home, get a summary (often brief) of the assignment and then get the necessary document they would like drafted or revised. You may sometimes be instructed to email the client to introduce yourself. After that, contact with the solo practitioner may be minimal until the work is completed. It can sometimes be frustrating, but considering the pay and the flexibility, it is an ideal situation for many of us.

Ask Questions

One piece of advice if you are in a similar situation is: ask as many questions as possible when you are first getting the assignment. This pretty much goes for partner/associate interaction at big firms too, but at least there are usually mid-level or senior associates that you can ask questions to if you are too intimidated to call the partner. If you don’t ask your questions in the first meeting, immediately after you delve into the document, start typing up a list of questions and then try to call/email as soon as you are done. Every minute that ticks away make it’s more difficult sometimes to go back and get the help you need. Your boss is probably busy, so be efficient with getting what you need from them to do the job.

Make the client comfortable with you

As is often the case, you are now the point man for that client and the client expects you to know everything the solo practitioner knows. They don’t care what year you are or how much experience you have. At the rates they are paying, they expect expert level answers. The best thing to do is be completely familiar with the terms of the contract and try to touch base with solo practitioner immediately before calling the client, as sort of a refresher in case you forget anything. When you call the client, you should also make sure to ask them as many possible questions upfront so as not to have to go back and harass them with many follow up calls emails. You can and should state at the end of the call that you may have some follow up questions and ask whether they would prefer email or phone. You want it to be as seamless as possible for the client, so they feel comfortable with you in the future and so the solo practitioner feels confident in leaving you alone.

Work Quickly

Often, you may not get an exact time frame to complete your assignment. You may hear something like “there’s no hurry” or “if you can get this done in a couple of weeks, that would be great.” Even if this is true, you should still assume they want it done sooner. When working freelance as an independent contractor, there is a natural tendency not to rush to get things done, but a good rule of thumb should be always to treat the assignment more urgently than it is. The solo practitioner will be impressed with your efficiently and probably reward you with more work. I personally freelance for a solo practitioner only around 10 hours a week right now, but I always try to put that 10 hours at the beginning of the week. Remember, if you’re being hired as a independent contractor, its because the solo practitioner doesn’t want to share fees with another attorney/have to pay a full time associate or he just may not have the workload for it. However, he’s using you as a freelancer because he wants someone he can count on to work fairly independently and complete the tasks given to him in a timely manner. Happy St. Patty’s Day.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chiperoni/192813959/)

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  • Matt,

    Great post. I was wondering what your take is on freelance sites like elance.com and legalriver.com. I have made bids, but only been awarded once. However, I don’t participate too much because I feel like it cheapens the firm’s, i.e., my, image. You seem to have worked out a decent system for these things. Thanks again for the great post.

  • Good thoughts Matt. This point – “You can and should state at the end of the call that you may have some follow up questions and ask whether they would prefer email or phone” – is a really good one, and not just for the logistical planning. As a client, I don’t want to be asked the same question over and over (implying that my matter is getting lost in the shuffle), but that’s a small caveat. I actually start feeling uncomfortable when my lawyer isn’t asking enough questions, especially when we’re working together on something involving judgment or persuasion.

    • Yes, I think that of all the points I was trying to make, if you take away one point that is it. Please ask the questions you need to ask as soon as you can. It will really irk the client if you don’t get the information you need when they are giving you the time to do so!

  • Matt, I certainly agree that freelancing is a desirable option these days, and everything you say about dealing with the hiring lawyer is good advice; but in your opening paragraph you suggest that people become freelancers because they don’t have time to start their own firm–because it’s the next best thing. Speaking for myself, at least, gotta differ with you there. I started freelancing because it allows me to focus on what I like best–research and writing. For me, freelancing is a first choice; and I spend as much time on it as I used to spend in my retail practice. It’s not a fall back position, or an alternative to starting a law firm. It is a law firm.

  • Why would your contact be minimal? This is a huge problem that I have with many of the contract attorneys I use – I may go for weeks without hearing about their progress. Don’t you want to keep them abreast of what you’re doing?

  • Matt, Carolyn’s comment caused me to read your post again, and when I did I noticed this: “You may sometimes be instructed to email the client to introduce yourself. After that, contact with the solo practitioner may be minimal until the work is completed.” This strongly suggests that the hiring lawyer is turning you loose to deal directly with the client as you work on the project. I gather from the general flavor of your post that you and your sports law friend practice in the same state, and if you do, then this is fine. But many freelancers, including me, offer their services across jurisdictional lines. In these cases, there should be no contact between the freelance attorney and the hiring lawyer’s client. When there is direct interaction between the two, it is impossible for the freelancer to avoid giving legal advice, or saying something that will be construed as legal advice.

  • @JIm Assuming the freelancer is licensed to practice law in the state he or she is working in, it should not be a problem to give legal advice to a person in another state. That is what lawyers do – give legal advice. How would a person in state B get legal advice about the law in state A if they couldn’t call a lawyer in state A and talk (or e-mail, etc.) to them?

  • Eric, The situation you describe doesn’t present any problem. I certainly can talk to an out-of-state person about the law in my state. My concern is with a different scenario that unfolds in my freelance practice all the time. I am admitted in New Hampshire, but not in Kansas. I get a call from a lawyer in Kansas who asks me to work on one of his cases. Jurisdiction is in Kansas and his client is in Kansas. I can work on the Kansas case as long as I deal only with the hiring lawyer and supply my work product directly to him; but I don’t think I can interact with his client without running the serious risk of unauthorized practice in Kansas.

  • @JIm There should not be a distinction between the contact you have with the lawyer and the contact you have with the client. If it would be UPL to talk to the client, then it would also be UPL to talk to the lawyer, because you would still be providing legal services to someone in Kansas (essentially, the lawyer is your client). Unless Kansas has an unusual ethics rule or UPL statute, I don’t think either contact would be UPL. The reason you can draft the brief is that you are not making an appearance in Kansas.

    That aside, I would think most lawyers would resist letting freelancers have direct contact with clients, because they might worry about losing the client, particularly where the freelancer is in the same state with the lawyer or could get admitted pro hac vice.

    • Eric, I don’t agree with you on this; but I wish I did. It would make a difference in my daily practice. If you don’t mind, I’ll communicate with you privately in the hope of learning more and maybe benefiting from your expertise in this area.