Outsourcing work to freelance lawyers and other assistants can be a good way to expand your firm’s capabilities without taking on permanent employees. If you use freelancers well, you can work smarter, not harder, when you have more work than you can handle comfortably but don’t want to turn away clients.
In this article, you will learn when and why you should consider outsourcing, what kinds of tasks you can outsource, and how to find independent contractors.
For more about outsourcing legal work, check out this podcast with freelance lawyer Lisa Solomon:
When to Outsource
While there are some things you might want to outsource on an ongoing basis (receptionists and bookkeepers are common examples), most outsourcing is project-by-project. If legal writing isn’t your forté and you have to respond to a motion, for example, you might hire a freelance lawyer with more legal writing experience to draft the brief.
You might also use outsourcing as an “audition” for someone you are considering hiring. No matter how good you are at interviewing potential hires, there’s no substitute for actually working with someone to find out if you can work well together.
Here are six good reasons to outsource work:
- Better client service. Outsourcing work lets you focus on what you are good at, and on what provides the most benefit to your clients. If you manage delegation well, the result should be as good or better than what you could do on your own.
- Higher quality work product. When you outsource work, you can hire experts instead of trying to do everything yourself—whether or not you are any good at it.
- Flexibility. Sometimes you have more work than you can handle on your own, but not enough (or it isn’t steady enough) to hire a new employee. Or you may just have a conflict that you can’t resolve, like two deals to close or two briefs due in the same week.
- Lower stress. There are intangible benefits to outsourcing, including lower stress when you effectively distribute your workload.
- Reduced malpractice risk. When you have too much on your plate, things start falling through the cracks, like client communication or missed deadlines—two common reasons for bar complaints. Dependable freelancers are better than you trying to juggle more things.
- Professional satisfaction. If your work is feeling overwhelming, boring, or routine, maybe you should hire someone to do some of the tasks you don’t enjoy so you can focus on the ones you do like.
- Take a vacation. It is much easier to leave work behind a take a vacation when it will get done even while you are touring Southeast Asia or sunbathing in Mexico. (Even if you still have to check in once a day or so.)
Lawyers often have a hard time admitting they can’t do everything. But that’s exactly what professional competence requires. You literally cannot do everything your clients need you to do. So when you have more work than you can handle competently (or while remaining sane), hire someone to help you.
What You Can Outsource
While you can outsource almost anything, you are obviously responsible for the work even if someone else does it on your behalf. So, for example, you shouldn’t outsource legal work instead of referring it to another lawyer if you aren’t competent to handle it on your own.1
And while the decision to outsource is yours, you shouldn’t outsource jobs your clients reasonably expect you to handle personally. If your clients feel deceived, don’t expect good things (or future referrals).
What you should outsource are tasks that someone else can do better than you because they have time and expertise that you don’t. If you are often crabby at being interrupted when the phone rings, you should probably find someone else to answer it. If you don’t have time to do a good job on an upcoming brief, hire a skilled freelance lawyer (probably not a law student) who can give it the attention it deserves.
Of course, some things are more amenable to outsourcing than others. Here are some tasks you should consider handing off to an expert freelancer, and some things for you to consider before you do.
Bookkeeping, payroll, and accounting. Many small firms work with a third-party bookkeeper who reconciles bank accounts and generates the necessary trust accounting reports every month. And most bookkeepers are used to this sort of arrangement. If you use desktop accounting software, your bookkeeper can either visit your office periodically or access your computer remotely. If you use cloud-based accounting software, you can give a bookkeeper their own login credentials.
The only real challenge is finding a bookkeeper that understands lawyers’ trust accounting requirements. Look for a bookkeeper who advertises to lawyers specifically, or ask colleagues for a referral. And before you commit to a bookkeeper long-term, make sure you are getting the reports you need to satisfy the ethics rules in your jurisdiction(s).
Receptionist. Hiring someone to answer your phone is one of the easiest and high-value tasks you can outsource. All you have to do is redirect your main phone number to a virtual receptionist service, which will answer your phone according to your instructions.
You don’t have to do this all the time. Some lawyers insist on answering their own phone as a matter of pride or client service. But even those lawyers can’t be available to pick up the phone cheerfully at all business hours. Even if you aspire to answer the phone all the time, it’s a good idea to use a virtual receptionist when you can’t, and save your clients and potential clients from impersonal voicemail.
Legal writing. Building a relationship with a freelance legal writer you trust is a great way to smooth out the inevitable surges in your workload. But don’t wait until you are overwhelmed to find someone. Otherwise, it’s quite possible you will end up with a draft you can’t use and no time to rewrite your brief.
Unlike a law student you’ve hired for the summer, a freelancer you trust should be able to step in and do the job you need with minimal oversight. Which is not to say you shouldn’t hire law students, but sometimes you need an experienced associate, not an inexperienced law student.
Once you get comfortable working with a freelance lawyer, you may want help with more than the occasional brief. A contract attorney could also help you with pleadings, discovery, and other litigation documents. Freelancers don’t just help litigators, either. A contract attorney could help prepare estate plans, securities filings, corporate articles and bylaws, and more.
It bears repeating, though: you are responsible for every document you sign, whether or not you prepared it.
Appearance counsel. In some jurisdictions, it is common to hire lawyers to appear for routine court hearings like status conferences. Other times, you may not be able to be in two places at once and need to hire a contract lawyer to defend a deposition or represent your client at a settlement conference.
Whether you are comfortable hiring someone to sit with your client at a deposition or negotiation obviously depends on your relationships with that lawyer and your client, and their comfort level with each other. But if you do have a good relationship with a freelance lawyer you trust, you will have a lot more options than if it is just you.
Trial prep. If you have a trial coming up, it may be helpful to hire someone to help organize your files, interview witnesses, create a visual timeline of key events, or just serve as a sounding board for strategy discussions.
More tasks you can outsource. You can outsource most marketing, administrative, and even lawyering tasks. Time is your most valuable resource, and you should spend as much of your time as possible solving legal problems for clients. The rest you should delegate—to outsourced help when it makes sense to do so. Here are some more tasks to consider outsourcing:
- Document review and analysis.
- Editing or cite-checking.
- Scanning and filing.
- Web design and development.
- Public relations.
As an exercise, try writing down all the tasks you do in your practice. Cross out the ones that only you can do. For the rest, consider whether you might be better off entrusting that task to a freelance lawyer or other specialist.
You may be surprised at the areas where you could use the help.
If you are just getting started, start small, with just one small item that you need help completing. Starting small will help you get used to the idea of outsourcing work and highlight any issues you need to resolve for bigger jobs.
How to Find a Freelancer
One of the best ways to find a freelancer is to ask your network for referrals. A personal recommendation from someone you trust is usually worth an interview or trial period, at least.
If that doesn’t work, try one of the online marketplaces. Here are some to check out:
For freelance lawyers:
- Now Counsel Network
- Hire an Esquire
- Custom Counsel
- StandIn (for appearance counsel), available on iTunes and Google Play
As part of your vetting process for lawyers, you should look for credentials, work samples, testimonials, and references. If you can’t find those on the lawyer’s profile or website, contact them and ask, or move on to the next likely candidate.
It may be tempting to hire a law student for cheaper labor. But before you do, consider whether you have the time to train and supervise a student. It may be more cost-effective to use a freelance lawyer, despite the higher cost.
For other tasks:
You can also try searching for specific kinds of services. For example, there are several companies marketing outsourced accounting services specifically to lawyers. Many marketing agencies and SEO consultants focus on law firms (although it’s not always easy to find a good one, but how to find a reputable online marketing consultant is a whole article of its own).
Finally, you can post the job with a bar association, on LinkedIn, or possibly on Craigslist, depending on the kind of task you need to be done. This is usually slower than a word-of-mouth referral or marketplace because you will have to sift through the applications and conduct interviews. You may have to pay a job-posting fee, as well. But posting jobs is tried and true, and it can work very well if you carefully vet and interview candidates.
Vetting and Interviewing Candidates
Before you post the job or go searching through online marketplaces, you should have a clear but flexible idea of what sort of freelancer you are looking for. Here are some qualities to consider:
- How experienced should they be?
- Does their personality matter? (Quiet? Charismatic?)
- Can they work remotely or do you want them to work from your town—or from your office?
- Do they need to have their own access to legal research services?
- Should they be familiar with a particular style manual, like Typography for Lawyers, A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, The Redbook, or The Bluebook?
- Do they need to be computer savvy?
- Are they able to comply with your requirements for secure communication and file storage?
Being very clear about your requirements will help you narrow down the candidates and guide your interviews.
If there is no obvious best candidate, you should narrow the candidate pool to two or three, and interview the finalists. You can interview over the phone, with a video call,2 or in person.
Before the interview, ask to see a sample of their work in a format that will let you judge its merits. For example, if you are hiring a freelance lawyer to draft a brief, ask for a Word document so you can make sure they know how to format a brief properly. (You can probably still tell from a PDF, but not always.)
As you talk with the candidate, pay special attention to their listening skills and the answers to your questions. Since a freelancer’s primary job is to follow your instructions, any evasiveness or incomprehension should be a red flag. If the candidate asks questions to clarify your meaning before answering, however, that’s generally a good sign.
Tell the candidate about the kind of task(s) you want them to perform and how you like to work, but spend time asking questions rather than monologuing. Let your requirements guide your conversation. Make sure you both understand the compensation structure and payment terms. Make sure they understand the need for confidentiality and discretion. Don’t rush the interview, especially if you are hoping to start a long-term relationship with a freelancer.
Once you have settled on a candidate, extend them an “offer” in writing in the form of their first task memo.
How to Work with a Freelancer
Be clear about the task. A vague description of the project probably won’t get you the results you want. Be clear about your desired outcome and specify any other expectations. Put everything into a work request memo so there is no question about the scope of the work.
Be clear about the deadline. Set a deadline for each deliverable (for a brief, for example, you might set deadlines for the draft, any revisions, and for the final document). Be reasonable, of course, and consult with your contractor if you aren’t sure whether your deadlines are doable.
Be clear about the rate. If you haven’t already settled on a rate and you aren’t sure what is fair, check with colleagues, your local bar association, or even a temp agency to get an idea of the going rate. Obviously, higher-skilled freelancers will command higher rates. An experienced graphic designer or freelance lawyer will charge more than an entry level web developer or law student.
Be clear about your budget. If you can get a flat/fixed fee, great. If not, ask your freelancer for a budget or estimate. Also, ask to be provided with regular progress reports so you can see the work getting done and so you can keep an eye on the budget.
Be clear about payment terms. If the freelancer asks for a deposit and you feel good about working with them, pay it. Otherwise, set out the terms in your memo and pay on time, even if your client has not paid you.
It is best to work with a written freelance work agreement signed by both parties, of course. Here is a template you can work from:
Once you have an agreement and the work begins, keep the lines of communication open to foster a mutually beneficial relationship.
If tech savviness is a priority, a video call can be a good way to gauge someone’s level of proficiency. Most tech-savvy people will have no problem with Skype or FaceTime. Most non-tech-savvy people will have trouble getting connected. ↩