California paralegals, is it time for you to start freelancing?
There can be no doubt that it’s an unnerving time to be employed by a law firm. In such uncertain times, working as a freelancer can become an attractive option. After all, freelancing gives you much greater control over when and how you work than a traditional law firm job does.
Nonetheless, there are downsides to freelancing as well.
In this article, we’ll explore the life of a freelance paralegal and discuss the ins, outs, pros, and cons of this ever-more-popular career choice. We’ll finish up by giving you some suggestions on how to find your next (or first) freelance gig in case you decide it’s the right path for you.
First, you should understand what a freelance paralegal does and how the career works.
For the most part, freelance paralegals are like any other paralegal.
The difference, of course, is that they technically don’t work for anyone. Instead, they are self-employed individuals who provide limited services on a contract basis.
For example, they might enter into a contract to handle a document review project or to assist an attorney with a particular case. From the beginning, however, all parties agree that when the project is completed, the engagement ends.
Freelance paralegals may also sign up for longer-term work with a firm, but since they’re not actually an employee, the paralegal can also work with other firms at the same time.
Many modern employers use freelance contracts as a prolonged job interview. Consequently, you shouldn’t be surprised if a successful contract (or series of contracts) for one firm ends with an offer for a more permanent position.
On the flip side, don’t be disappointed if you don’t receive a job offer from a firm that you’ve worked for repeatedly.
Many firms that hire freelance paralegals simply don’t have the budget or the forecasted workload to justify a full-time employee.
Of course, if you’ve decided to become a freelance paralegal, you likely have solid reasoning surrounding that decision. Don’t feel pressured to accept a permanent position if you don’t want one.
That said, it’s nice to have steady work as a freelancer. You may be able to negotiate your way into a long-term contract that will still afford you the flexibility you desire.
With all of that said, let’s take a closer look at some of the lesser-known pros and cons of the freelance paralegal lifestyle.
Many people choose freelancing over traditional employment because of the incredible flexibility it provides.
For the most part, you can choose to work when you want and where you want. This is particularly attractive for people who like to travel a lot or for those who simply detest the day-to-day grind of being in an office setting.
That flexibility is also wonderful if you want to work odd hours or fit your workload around childcare responsibilities or another priority.
The ability to choose your own schedule and work location is often the most attractive part of a freelance paralegal career, but there are plenty of other benefits to consider, too.
When you work in a law firm, you pretty much have to accept the assignments that are given to you.
In truth, most firms don’t care that it has always been your dream to be a real estate paralegal. If they need you to work exclusively on IPOs for a year and a half, that’s what you’ll do.
When you’re a freelancer, on the other hand, you can specialize only in those areas of law that interest you. For example, you could advertise that you only work on real estate matters.
While you may be offered other kinds of jobs, you are under no obligation to accept them. This is a great way to continue to develop expertise in a desired practice area, especially if you’re aiming to build your reputation and increase your rates.
In some cases, freelancing can be incredibly lucrative.
For example, if your experience justifies it, you can charge more per hour than a firm would likely pay you in-house.
Firms are willing to pay higher hourly rates to freelancers because they don’t have the other costs incident to employment – things like employee benefits, office space for you to work in, and computer equipment for you to use. Plus, they aren’t obligated to schedule you for 40 hours per week.
You might also consider charging clients flat rates for discreet project work.
If you work efficiently and set your rates high enough, you can make a higher average hourly rate than you would as a full-time employee at a firm. Most freelance paralegals make between $22 and $45 per hour, though you can justify higher rates for more specialized work.
Of course, freelancing isn’t all kicks and giggles. Here are some of the downsides to this type of career.
As noted above, freelancing can be a great way to earn a higher income.
With that additional income, however, comes additional expenses.
For example, you’ll need to pay your own employment-related taxes. You’ll also need to supply your own equipment and pay for critical things like WiFi and caffeinated drinks.
(The upside to all this, of course, is that many of these expenses become great tax deductions.)
Perhaps the biggest expense is also the most overlooked: marketing yourself. Even if you’re entirely using “free” sources to get your name out there, the necessary time you spend on promotion is technically unpaid work. Invest too much time in marketing efforts that don’t pay off and your effective hourly rate might look closer to minimum wage.
As a freelance paralegal, it’s also very important that you choose your clients carefully.
If an independent consumer (i.e., non-attorney) hires you to perform substantive legal work, and you perform that work, you run the risk of having an Unlicensed Practice of Law (UPL) complaint filed against you.
Remember that in California, paralegals must only perform such work under the “direct supervision” of a licensed attorney.
Despite this legal mandate, there are hoards of potential clients looking to hire paralegals over attorneys just to save a few bucks. Don’t let them do it at the risk of your career.
Fortunately, the world has become quite accustomed to the freelance revolution over the past decade. Numerous freelance websites exist, and you can even take online webinars on how to begin a freelance career.
If you want to start dabbling today, however, here are some easy tips for getting started.
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