By Erin Giglia
Transitioning to freelance legal work from traditional legal employment can be a big decision that carries personal, professional, and financial implications. As lawyers, we typically love information. Running a freelance attorney company for over a decade, I have learned many realities and best practices to consider before jumping in.
I have spoken numerous times on the topic of freelance lawyering, and previously provided Questions and Answers regarding become a freelance lawyer. I’m always happy to share my thoughts with our blog readers.
How much work can I expect as a freelance attorney, and what is the typical project for a freelance attorney?
The only thing about freelance legal work that is predictable and consistent is that it is unpredictable and inconsistent. We all know there are many upsides to becoming a freelance lawyer, but one downside of a flexible way to practice law is unpredictability. We cannot emphasize this enough. Every situation is different. Every freelance attorney is different. Every firm is different. Every lawyer within that firm is different. Every client within that firm is different. All of this means that there is absolutely no way to predict when a firm will reach out for help, what that project will be, or when they need it completed. Most firms do their best to plan and give notice, but not everyone is great at it, and it is not always possible even with the best planning.
There are all kinds of firms, all kinds of lawyers, all kinds of projects/freelance work. Some freelance lawyers work 30 hours per week, others work 30 hours per month, and some work 30 hours per year. You get to decide what you believe will work best for you. Do you want a lot of work, or will you be selective with the type of work you handle? Do you want to work behind the scenes only, or are you willing to interact with the firm’s clients/opposing counsel/witnesses/employees/courts? Will you only handle high level, substantive work, or are you willing to do whatever tasks a firm needs? All of these decisions may affect your rate, and the options you will have. There is no right or wrong answer. It is your choice.
The good news is that freelance work allows you to decline work that does not work for you. I suggest that if you do need to decline work, you do so very kindly. For example, if timing is the problem, then respond with something like this:
Hi Danielle, thank you so much for your message. I would love to help with your commercial lease review. I can’t get it to you by tomorrow at noon, but I can turn it around by Tuesday close of business. I estimate it will take 5-7 hours. Please let me know if that will work for you. If not, then I’m happy to help you in the future. Thank you!
If you are booked to the point that you cannot help them for the foreseeable future (or you do not want to work for the firm for any reason), then tell them that you would love to help, but are booked for the foreseeable future and will not be able to assist. Be kind. Feel free to direct them to a resource, like Montage Legal Group, who may be able to assist.
Tip: Be flexible. Be helpful. Set realistic expectations. If you are looking for consistency, then be on the lookout for firms seeking consistent help.
Have everything set up in advance
Having a freelance practice means you are running your own business. Things you may want to do: set up a business bank account (this may involve creating a basic business plan), determine if you need to obtain liability coverage (this is not always necessary and depends on a freelance lawyer’s preference), get a business email account, an accounting system for invoicing/collection, have an agreement ready to send to potential law firms, determine your hourly rate, determine if you want to set up an entity, determine whether you need a business license, and anything else you may need to do.
You will need to have a resume or bio ready to send out. Make sure you understand the relevant ethical rules, as well as ethics implications of various things a firm may ask of you. Know your boundaries, and set them politely yet firmly. Some firms may want to give you a title, add you to the firm website, or have you attend client meetings. That arrangement my carry ethical implications, such as being considered as of counsel, so think through various scenarios, and decide what will work for you in advance so a firm’s requests do not take you by surprise.
And remember, if they ask you something you have not previously considered, it is perfectly acceptable to tell them that you will have to get back to them. There is no need to make immediate decisions without time to consider the positives and negatives.
How do I get work?
Networking is probably the most effective method. Attend local Bar Association events. Note that you do freelance work on your LinkedIn profile. Reach out to your contacts to tell them that you are doing freelance work. Be sure to specify your practice area(s) because otherwise people may ask you to assist with projects far outside your wheelhouse. If you are interested in easy access to projects and someone to handle your billing/collections for you, you might consider joining a freelance attorney company, like Montage Legal Group.
How can I prevent billing disputes?
It is unlikely that we can avoid all billing disputes, but we can do our best to minimize them. Step one is to do your due diligence on any potential law firm client. Read their online reviews. Step two is to interview each firm as much as they interview you. You need to make sure that the firm is a good fit for you as much as they need you to be a good fit for them. Are they trying to negotiate your rate? Do they seem difficult at the outset? Do they communicate well? Are their expectations unrealistic? These may be possible red flags.
The most important things you can do to prevent billing disputes are (a) to set time expectations upfront and in writing, and (b) to set clear assignment parameters also upfront and in writing. This is easier than it sounds, especially because many hiring firms are so busy that they barely have time to tell you what they need.
This means that you must confirm the assignment, when you will have it completed, and your time estimate, over email, even if you already discussed these items over the phone or in an online meeting. If the firm asks you to do something that is physically impossible (please review and revise this 20-page, single-spaced commercial lease in under 20 minutes), or asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable, then politely decline the project. Remember that law firms must manage their client’s fee expectations, which they cannot do without full information about how long your work will take. Do not assume that they will agree that your time is reasonable. If you want to avoid requests to reduce your time, then the best way to prevent this is to set time expectations upfront and in writing.
Freelance legal work is an excellent option for attorneys who are looking for ultimate career flexibility. It is a fantastic way to keep a hand in the legal market while pursuing other interests, such as family or alternative career paths. Freelance legal work can also be a stepping stone to get back into legal practice after taking time away.
To join Montage Legal Group, please send your resume to [email protected].
Erin was a litigator at Snell & Wilmer in Orange County, California before co-founding Montage Legal Group in 2009. Montage is a network of freelance attorneys who opted out of the traditional law firm model in favor of career flexibility.
Erin is a frequent writer and speaker on legal outsourcing, work-life balance, women in law, and legal ethics, and has been honored with various awards including OC Metro Magazine’s 2011 Top 40 under 40 and Enterprising Women Magazine’s 2014 Enterprising Women of the Year Award. Montage Legal Group has been featured in ABA’s “Freelance Law: Lawyers’ Network Helps These Women Keep a Hand in the Workforce,” Forbes.com’s “How Two Stay-at-Home Moms Are Changing the Legal Industry,” and in “Disruptive Innovation: New Models of Legal Practice” by UC Hastings Work Life Law Center, among other articles.
You can read a recently published article co-written by Erin on how growing firms can take advantage of freelance attorneys and Of Counsel positions: Law Firm Growth During an Uncertain Legal Climate – Part 1: Of Counsel Relationships and Law Firm Growth During an Uncertain Legal Climate – Part 2: How to Ethically Use Freelance Lawyers & Referral Fees, California Lawyers Association, The Practitioner (Summer 2020, Volume 26, Issue 3; Fall 2020, Volume 26, Issue 4).