As the legal profession evolves to meet the changing demands of the marketplace, freelance attorneys have a new angle on the practice of law, and their numbers have been growing in the largest U.S. legal markets over the past several years. Freelance attorneys enjoy much greater flexibility and control over their law practices than most solo practitioners. And because freelance attorneys are independent contractors hired by other attorneys to handle legal work on a contract project basis, setting up a freelance practice is fairly straightforward.
Some confusion stems from the historical understanding of a contract attorney. Generally, a contract attorney is employed by a legal services agency to work on large-scale projects for an hourly wage paid by the agency. In contrast, a freelance attorney is an experienced attorney who is hired directly by another attorney to work on a specific component of a case or transaction. As independent contractors, freelance attorneys build their own freelance law practices and are responsible for setting their own hours, finding their own clients, and bringing in their own income.Freelance attorneys come from every corner of the legal profession, including big law firms, in-house counsel, government positions, public sector, and solo practice. Usually with five or more years of practicing law on their resumes, freelance attorneys want flexibility not available in most traditional attorney 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 a solo practice, moving with a spouse who is required to relocate for work, starting or growing a side business outside of the legal profession. These attorneys seek out freelance work as a way to continue practicing law on their own schedules.
The cornerstone of freelance work is flexibility and control — freelance attorneys have the freedom to focus on work that interests them and to complete assignments within their own schedules and availability. Most freelance attorneys focus on a niche practice area and offer their expertise to other attorneys who need help with a related case, transaction, or project. The relationship is symbiotic and premised on flexibility — the hiring attorney provides the occasional work and pay while the freelance attorney provides the support and end product as needed.
What are the building blocks of a freelance law practice? There is plenty of advice out there for attorneys looking to build a solo practice representing direct clients. But for an attorney looking to do freelance work, either full-time or part-time, what is truly necessary to get started?. To work as a freelance attorney, the primary considerations are:
- malpractice insurance
- a written freelance work agreement
- marketing strategy
- a financial plan
First, and probably most important, a freelance attorney should have malpractice insurance. Although a freelance attorney should verify that the hiring attorney carries current and sufficient malpractice insurance to cover the project, there is always the possibility that the hiring attorney’s insurer will seek indemnification from a freelance attorney if a malpractice claim is filed. Whether or not the freelance attorney will be held liable is separate issue, but handling the cost of defending against the malpractice claim is not something any freelance attorney should risk. In addition, carrying a malpractice insurance policy increases the reputability of a freelance attorney’s practice, showing potential clients (hiring attorneys) that the freelance attorney is a professional ready to do business the right way. With freelance work being a relatively new practice area, the availability and coverage of malpractice insurance for freelance attorneys varies. However, most people are surprised by how affordable it is. Insurers need to have a clear understanding of the freelance work being done, including practice area(s) and the number of billable hours you expect to work each month. Although it takes time and effort, acquiring a malpractice insurance policy that effectively covers a freelance attorney’s work will be worthwhile.
Written Freelance Work Agreement
Second, a freelance attorney should have a written agreement. The agreement should clearly define the project terms for everyone involved, including ethical and legal considerations, and protect the interests of both the freelance attorney and the hiring attorney. In most cases, a simple, two- or three-page agreement will suffice. The necessary contents of the agreement are debatable, but generally it should cover:
- scope of the freelance project
- malpractice insurance coverage
- work-product ownership
- professional responsibility parameters
- dispute resolution
There may be situations, depending on the client, project, or timetable, where getting a written freelance work agreement at the outset of the project is not possible or necessary. If a hiring attorney is looking for last-minute, emergency assistance, there may not be time to negotiate an agreement before getting to work. Or maybe the hiring attorney and freelance attorney have a pre-existing professional relationship and are comfortable working without a formal agreement. But even in these situations, it benefits both sides to set forth the basic project terms in an email. Ultimately, having something in writing, regardless of the level of formality, is a good idea.
Third, a freelance attorney needs technology. This is a necessity, not a suggestion. The advances in technology during the past five years are driving force fueling the growth in freelance work — attorneys can work remotely on projects, anywhere and anytime. At a minimum, a freelance attorney needs a good laptop computer loaded with basic software, wireless access to high speed internet, and connection to a printer and scanner.
Communication with hiring attorneys will be accomplished by phone and email, for the most part, so a freelance attorney must be able to rely on both. To provide the best customer service to busy hiring attorneys outsourcing their work, invest in a smartphone. Especially for freelance attorneys practicing part-time while devoting the rest of their time to other professional or personal pursuits, a smartphone gives the appearance of availability at all times. Or most times, at least.
Finally, a freelance attorney will need online access to legal research. Subscriptions to Westlaw or Lexis are generally too high-priced for a freelance attorney just starting out, but there are other more-reasonably priced options out there. Overall, with a simple technology suite (laptop with basic software, printer/scanner, smartphone, and legal research subscription), a freelance attorney has the necessary tools to take on projects.
Fourth, a freelance attorney must have a marketing strategy. The desired end client — big firms, solo practitioners, in-house legal departments, or government entities — will shape strategic marketing, but a few fundamental ideas are applicable to every freelance attorney.
The two basic marketing tools are a business card and an online presence. Creating a professional business card is incredibly easy and cheap thanks to a variety of online print resources. And if developing a website is not within a freelance attorney’s initial budget, starting with a free online profile through LinkedIn or Avvo is enough to establish a legitimate and professional online presence.
Beyond marketing tools, the key ingredients to marketing freelance work are networking and referrals. Since the clients of freelance attorneys are other attorneys, it makes sense that freelance attorneys need to constantly meet and maintain relationships with a variety of attorneys. Every networking avenue should be explored — meeting for coffee or lunch or a happy hour, attending local bar functions and CLEs. Send emails to check in regularly with attorney connections, asking about their current workload and reminding them of the availability of freelance work.
Every connection to a new attorney is a potential opportunity for work. And once a new client requests freelance help, going above and beyond to complete the project will create the foundation for a referral. A satisfied hiring attorney is usually happy to pass on the name and contact information for a freelance attorney who does good work. Word of mouth recommendations are the gold standard in the freelance attorney marketplace — attorneys who need help are more likely to engage a highly recommended and trusted freelance attorney.
Ultimately, the marketing strategy of a freelance attorney does not have to be complicated, but it does require a business card, online presence, and hard work.
Finally, a freelance attorney needs a financial plan. Freelance finances are not as complicated as the trust account and bookkeeping requirements for solo practitioners and law firms representing direct clients.
The first half of the freelance attorney financial plan is billing structure. Freelance attorneys set their rates based on several factors, including years of experience, geographic location, and type of freelance work done. A freelance attorney with ten years of experience working in a large metropolitan area on brief-writing projects is going to charge more than a freelance attorney with five years of experience working in a remote location on document-review projects. How the hiring attorney is billed for freelance work can take on a variety of forms: a straight hourly rate, an hourly rate with a cap, a flat rate per project, etc. The key is flexibility mixed with good business sense. Freelance attorneys need to know when and how to bill appropriately for their work.
The second half of the freelance financial plan is collecting and maintaining income. A freelance attorney can operate as an independent contractor and sole proprietorship, providing hiring attorneys with a social security number for payment and a year-end 1099 form. Of course, a freelance attorney should understand the pros and cons of a sole proprietorship and whether forming a business entity makes sense.
Also, perform an initial break-even analysis, balancing the basic costs of operating a freelance practice with the necessary and/or desired profit. As the practice grows, the break-even analysis should be adjusted as new practice-related accouterments are acquired. Like a solo practice, the income and work will never be certain for a freelance attorney. A smart freelance financial plan, including a flexible billing structure and concrete income strategies, will keep the freelance attorney ahead of the game.
With a little organization and forethought, the basic building blocks of a freelance law practice should fall into place. Seeking out other freelance attorneys can be a great way to support a freelance practice, both for moral support and advice gathering. Look for groups of freelance attorneys that provide support and educate the greater legal community on the availability of freelance help. There is also a book on freelance legal work, the Freelance Lawyering Manual by Kimberly Alderman. The resources available to freelance attorneys will continue growing along with the increasing number of attorneys operating freelance law practices. Based on the demands of the marketplace and the evolving changes in the legal profession, freelance attorneys are here to stay.
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