How to Become a Freelance Lawyer

As the legal profession evolves to meet the changing demands of the marketplace, freelance lawyers 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. A freelance lawyer enjoys 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

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
  • compensation
  • confidentiality
  • conflict-checking
  • malpractice insurance coverage
  • work-product ownership
  • professional responsibility parameters
  • dispute resolution
  • termination

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.

Marketing Strategy

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.

Freelance Attorney Financial Plan

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.

Emerald Gratz worked as a freelance attorney from 2011-2014. Presently, she works as an Assistant Commissioner for the Minnesota Supreme Court.

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  1. Avatar Brittney says:

    A well written article with useful, practical tips – not just a theoretical discussion. Thank you!

  2. Avatar Karen R. Cole says:

    An excellent article that covers what is needed to set up a freelance practice. And talks about the reasons to do that. I’d add one more: Some of us — like me — just prefer working for lawyers. And a freelance practice is a good way to do that.

  3. Avatar A Real Attorney says:

    How do you avoid working for both sides as a freelance attorney? One would think that you would need more than your average screening procedures in order to prevent a conflict of interest. Even though a freelance attorney is merely doing work for another attorney, is one to consider the clients to have formed an attorney-client relationship with the freelancer? Rules of Professional Responsibility in my State of Tennessee do not seem to encourage “freelancing,” in my opinion. Also: I’d have placed malpractice insurance as an option, seeing as how hard it is for one to maintain a succesful suit against an attorney for malpractice. The standard of the burden of proof is merely too hard for most plaintiffs to prove with clear and convincing evidence.

    • Avatar Emerald Gratz says:

      Freelance attorneys, like all attorneys, are ethically required to run a conflict check before taking on a new project. The record-keeping and procedures needed are not more burdensome than any other attorney in private practice, but organization and attention to detail are required.

      Best practice for a freelance attorney is to have a provision in the written agreement stating that no attorney-client relationship is formed between the hiring attorney’s direct client and the freelance attorney. And the client information provided to the freelance attorney should be limited to only that necessary to complete the project. In practice, most freelance attorneys never meet or interact with the direct client. Not necessary, in my experience.

      The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has specifically addressed both the work of a freelance attorney and the hiring of a freelance attorney in several formal opinions. See ABA Formal Op. 08-451 (Aug. 5, 2008); ABA Formal Op. 00-420 (Nov. 29, 2000); ABA Formal Op. 88-356 (Dec. 16, 1988).

      Malpractice insurance is always an option for any attorney. It just depends how much risk, time, and money an attorney is willing to tolerate. But as noted above, I recommend that freelance attorneys acquire a policy to protect their professional reputation and the financial stability of their practices.

    • Avatar Karin Ciano says:

      Most freelancers would agree that the best practice is to behave as if there were an attorney-client relationship with the ultimate client. That means conflict checking, maintaining confidences, and the usual obligations of regular practice (with the notable exception of trust accounting). I’m both solo and freelance, and can attest that conflict checking is exactly the same in both instances. The screening procedures work just fine for freelance projects–the important thing is to know exactly who the parties are (and if the hiring attorney doesn’t want to tell me, I would consider that a red flag not to take the project). Also, if you’re going to receive any confidential information, or if your fees are going to be billed out to the ultimate client as attorney fees (rather than costs), the hiring attorney should let the client know you’ll be working on the file.
      “Real Attorney,” don’t despair if the Tennessee ethics board doesn’t seem to encourage freelancing. In my experience, few state PR boards have directly addressed the question of outsourcing generally, much less the question of freelance attorneys specifically, which is why the ABA Model Rules remain the primary source of guidance.

  4. Avatar Eric Voigt says:

    Thanks for this good checklist. Freelance attorneys should also check the ethical rules in the relevant jurisdiction to confirm that the hiring attorneys can charge their clients more than the freelance attorney’s fee. That could be a great selling point.

    And you are right that Westlaw and Lexis may be too expensive for a new freelance attorney. I teach legal research and writing and have created CLE materials that
    cover over 40 websites for free legal research. The materials include six top websites for free legal encyclopedias and secondary sources (including recent law review articles) and seven top websites to find statutes and cases. To see sample pages, visit my company’s site at

  5. Avatar Karin Ciano says:

    Thanks for this post Emerald – this is great advice for anyone thinking about starting a freelance practice. As a freelancer since 2011, I agree that startup costs are relatively low compared to many types of solo practice – but would-be freelancers need to embrace the idea that it’ll be necessary to invest wisely in the business before the business will be able to pay you back. Malpractice insurance is a must, and a great value. So is an up-to-date computer with a dedicated scanner and appropriate data backup – Lawyerist has lots of great information on how to get set up with tech at a reasonable cost. Marketing can also be done inexpensively – my best investments at the outset were a set of business cards, a professional portrait for social media, and a simple WordPress website by Bitter Lawyer’s own Greg Luce.

  6. Avatar guest says:

    Why not just seek business from the end client? The attorney that you work for is just taking a cut off of your labor. “Free lance” or “contract” work is just a temporary thing you do while you build up a client base.

    • Avatar Karin Ciano says:

      Sorry guest… what you just described is called stealing someone else’s client… a great way never to get hired again. A major point of freelancing is not to compete with other attorneys for business, but to help them do their business better. And the stereotype that it’s just a “temporary thing” is changing too. For a many attorneys, freelance work can a temporary thing on the way to being a solo (or getting a firm job). But as the associate ranks in law firms diminish we’re seeing an increasing number of attorneys who choose to make freelancing their main thing. If you like working with other lawyers, don’t need to work directly with clients, and would rather do legal work than run a firm, it’s not a bad gig.

    • Avatar Emerald Gratz says:

      Historically, working as a contract attorney was a temporary endeavor, intended to fill a transition period while an attorney was gaining experience or between jobs. But that stereotype no longer applies. Instead, attorneys who build a freelance practice doing work on a contract project basis are making a definitive career choice for the reasons explained in my post. Use of the title freelance attorney instead of contract attorney speaks directly to the shift in paradigm. See another explanation on the dynamic here:
      And hiring attorneys are ethically allowed to “take a cut” of the fees generated by a freelance attorneys work, if they want to. Not all hiring attorneys do. It depends on the case, project, client, and working relationship.

  7. Avatar Lisa Solomon says:

    I have worked exclusively as a freelance lawyer since 1996, and have been blogging about issues relevant to freelance lawyers and hiring attorneys since 2008. ( While this post and the comments generally provide sound, basic advice, I have a few comments.

    First, with respect to investing in Lexis or Westlaw (or, more likely, WestlawNext), put yourself in the position of a hiring attorney. Regardless of the growing availability of free legal research sites, a lawyer using Lexis or Westlaw/WLN will generally be able to complete a research more efficiently, for a variety of reasons. Second, Lexis and Westlaw/WLN subscriptions are actually not that expensive, especially for freelance lawyers who limit their practices to one or a few states (a freelance lawyer may ethically work with lawyers in any jurisdiction). You can find tips on how to get the best price on your Lexis or Westlaw/WLN subscription on my blog.

    Second, freelance lawyers should always use written service agreements. It takes only minutes for me to personalize my standard services agreement and send it out for signature via an electronic signature service (such as HelloSign or Echosign). There’s really nothing to “negotiate” other than the scope of the project – something that should always be done in writing.

    Third, in addition to the ABA, 22 states (and a few city and county bars) have issued ethics opinions that address freelance lawyering. In some states, there are multiple applicable opinions. I have blogged about a number of these decisions, and have compiled all of them in a manual available on my website. Additionally, as part of the ABA’s Ethics 20/20 initiative, the comments to the ABA Model Rules were revised to explicitly address outsourcing.

    • Avatar Karin Ciano says:

      Let me take a moment to wholeheartedly endorse Lisa, who I credit with inventing freelance practice as we know it, and also her website and blog – they are TERRIFIC resources for anyone interested in a freelance practice, particularly a research and writing based practice. I am a follower and a huge fan.

      Lisa’s site and video tutorials have great advice on getting the best rates from the premium research services, which I followed to get a nice deal from WestlawNext about a year into practice. That said, going into my third year of practice, WestlawNext remains the single largest part of my monthly overhead. (They also appear to raise their rates every year, just to keep it interesting for the fans.) I’ve been using West products for 20 years and have invested the time in learning them – so as Lisa suggests, it helps me complete a project more efficiently.
      At the same time, Fastcase and Google Scholar are vastly improved from where they were even a couple of years ago. Fastcase (free with state bar association membership in MN) has all 50 states’ statutes, cases, and major regs; Google Scholar has extensive coverage of law reviews. They don’t have the brand recognition of a premium service, and they don’t have the proprietary bells and whistles (treatises, restatements, Shepard’s, keynumbers etc.), but on the other hand, they free up $3000+ per year for spending on other things that for some practices might return more value (virtual office, website, CLE, marketing). I have observed that a number of solos and small firms are no longer using the premium services themselves.
      If you’re doing research and writing intensive practice, especially one where you’re going to need the coverage Fastcase and Google Scholar lack, AND you can bill hourly, I would say a premium service is well worth the cost because it’s a timesaver and a competitive advantage. But if that’s not your focus, I question whether that’s the best use of limited funds, especially when starting a practice.
      Any freelancers out there want to weigh in? Have the premium services been worth it for you, and if so, why is that? If you’re doing without, how’s that going?

  8. Avatar Jonathan Stevens says:

    Make no mistake, you’ve got to put a TON of up-front work in to establish yourself as a freelance lawyer. I could see where some potential clients would be worried about this, but I also think that it allows you a greater deal of flexibility with your field of practice.

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