Legal Outsourcing: Using Freelancers and Contractors in Your Law Firm
Managing a Small Law Firm
7 min read
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You can’t run your business all alone. Over time, your commitment to trying to do everything yourself is actually holding you back! You can’t successfully be the VP of every department, grow revenue, and take the time off you need. If you’re not ready for the financial commitment hiring takes, legal outsourcing, an independent contractor, or working with a freelance attorney are great options.
More affordable and with fewer strings attached than employees, independent contractors can power important parts of your law firm. For example, that could include your marketing and your administrative and intake process. You can even outsource legal work to other freelance attorneys. If you’re concerned about cost, you determine what the working relationship with freelancers looks like. Outsourcing to freelancers successfully relies on a systematized process. This means deciding what to hand off, who to hire, and how to onboard them the right way.*
*As lawyers, we’ve got to give a disclaimer here. You need to follow all federal and state rules when classifying someone as an employee or independent contractor. Nothing in this article is legal advice. Please consult with an employment lawyer. Here’s guidance from the IRS and the Department of Labor to get you started.
Are you burning the midnight oil? Are you constantly trying to cross things off your to-do list, only to discover three more? You’re not alone. Many solo lawyers or small firm lawyers start off keeping things bootstrapped. But ultimately they find that once the practice grows, there are too many things to keep track of to keep the business growing.
Getting lost in the weeds with admin tasks is a sure sign that you at least need to talk to a virtual legal assistant about your options. Administrative work, cleaning out your email inbox, posting blogs, or sharing on social media are all important. But they don’t need to be handled by someone billing $100+ per hour. You’re better off leveraging the time and mental energy by passing those on to a dedicated legal or virtual assistant.
“Wow, I barely made it!”
If you find yourself leaving the office Friday afternoon with a feeling of “Wow, I barely made it!”, it’s time to consider outsourcing.
The first place to start is determining all the tasks you’re completing on an ongoing basis. Keep note of all the time you devote to each aspect of your business during a week. If your day-to-day schedule is relatively similar, track all your tasks in one day.
Once you’ve completed this list, look for the tasks that:
Don’t make you money
Pull you from your “zone of genius” in talking to clients and practicing law
You don’t do well or find frustrating
You don’t enjoy
Take you a very long time to complete
There might be several tasks that make sense to outsource together. For example, the same person who builds your intake process might also be appropriate to manage your calendar. Resist the urge to give all the tasks on your list to one person as your virtual legal assistant. It is better to delegate to freelancers who have specific areas of expertise in the areas where you need the most help.
Many tasks can be outsourced to that give you time to work on your business instead of in it, while also leveraging your budget. Hiring freelancers means that you only pay for the work completed. You won’t have to take on some of the overhead that would be required with an employee. Partnering with a virtual legal assistant is a great first step for someone who hasn’t tried other legal outsourcing before.
To help you get started, consider this list of work you might outsource:
Once you start delegating and outsourcing, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
Hiring a great virtual legal assistant, freelance attorney, or another independent contractor relies on excellent job descriptions and instructions. You can only attract quality help when you have a coherent system in place for hiring. When outsourcing, it’s critical to be clear about expectations, communication methods, and payment guidelines before working together.
Once you know what you want to outsource, it’s time to formalize that in a clear job description.
Your job description should explain the role and specifics that the freelancer should know before working with you, including:
A system for collecting applications will make it much easier for you to manage than being flooded with emails. It’s also the first opportunity to see how your potential freelancers follow directions. Consider using a tool like Google Forms to capture their details so you can review the results. For a role where you’ll work with the person in a client-facing or long-term capacity, interview your top few candidates.
Interviewing your prospective freelancer is your first chance to see how well you communicate with one another. Interview the candidate over the phone or on a video call to get a better sense of who they are. Allow them to ask you questions during this time.
Consider interview questions such as:
What type of clients do you prefer working with?
What is your background in the legal industry, if any?
Tell me about how you set up your work schedule to meet deadlines.
Tell me about a time when you made a mistake and how you handled that situation.
Use a test job for legal outsourcing when interviewing for long-term projects or roles where the freelancer will pick up over five hours per week. This will help you see how well they communicate, meet deadlines, and follow directions. Yes, this is work you’ll pay them to do. The ideal test job is a small slice of something they’d be working on, if engaged for bigger projects.
When creating a test job, make sure that it:
This “screen test” will tell you a lot about what you can expect going forward if you hire the freelancer. Use this test job with at least two freelancers to compare and determine who might be the better fit.
Determine how you’ll share necessary access to your systems with your new freelancer. Tools like Dashlane and Lastpass provide a layer of security. You can easily revoke access if the freelancer no longer works with you.
Set aside time to train the contractor or freelance attorney on your systems. Written instructions or screen capture videos both work effectively for an independent contractor. As you work together, involve the freelancer in building out the processes and systems for future reference. Having processes in place prevents confusion and surprises while also letting the freelancer take things off your plate. For ongoing support, set up long-term goals to work effectively with a freelancer. The more they come to know you, your clients, and your firm, the better they’ll perform in this role. They may even be scaled up to support in new ways.
Make sure you set realistic expectations with contractors up front. You should be clear about workflow, communication, and turnaround time.
Legal outsourcing is a great, accessible way to delegate and get things off your plate so you can focus on managing the law firm and other priorities.
There are three general models to use when setting up payment terms: hourly, project-based, and retainer. Start with hourly if you’re unsure how much support you’ll need or if tasks will vary from week to week. Project-based work outlines specific milestones that build-up to the bigger project, such as building your website. You pay a freelancer for ongoing work on a retainer basis, like social media or blogging.
Be sure to establish an invoicing system, weekly limits, and collect tax information. You’ll need to send a 1099 to your freelancer after the calendar year.
Don’t fall prey to just going with the flow. As you move forward with your firm, continue to look for ways to improve how you conduct your business. Remember that improving how you work often leads to an enhanced client experience and a better work environment for your team. It really is a win-win-win! Want to learn more about what successful firms are doing to create amazing businesses?