I’ve known a lot of lawyers in my day. Heck, I was one for more years than I care to admit. If there’s one thing I know about lawyers, it is that over half of them wish they could quit today. Being a lawyer is hard work. Being part of a firm, big or small, is hard work. You have to navigate egos, deal with office politics, and give up most of your personal life just to meet billable hour requirements.
With all that pressure, it’s no wonder so many lawyers fantasize about going out on their own. But have you really given any serious thought to becoming a freelance lawyer? I’ve done it. And although ultimately, being a freelance writer provided more of the lifestyle I was looking for, I learned a thing or two along the way. In this article, we explore some of the major considerations for becoming a freelance attorney – from pros to cons and everything in-between.
Consideration #1: Your time is your own – PRO
When you become a freelancer, you set your own schedule. There’s no need to put in face-time at an office. You work when you want to work. So, if you are truly a night person – have at it! You can work all night and sleep all day if you want to. Also, if you are only interested in working 10 hours a week, you can do that too (so long as you can afford it).
Consideration #2: Say goodbye to a regular paycheck – CON
No matter how many freelance lawyer gigs you think you have lined up, exactly zero of them constitute “sure things.” When you work for a firm or an agency, they’re legally bound to pay you so long as you remain employed. Freelance work comes and goes. Typically, it “goes” right when you need it most. So, if you don’t have a significant nest egg to fall back on when times are lean, now may not be the time for you to begin freelancing. That, or just be prepared for the emotional rollercoaster.
Consideration #3: You can control how much risk you take on – PRO
Let’s say you don’t want the financial trappings of pesky little things like malpractice insurance. Well, for the most part, freelance attorneys (especially those who solely take overflow work from law firms and other lawyers) are not required to carry malpractice insurance.
In fact, if you’re doing overflow work for a firm, that firm’s malpractice insurance should cover any of the work that is supervised by its attorneys. Note, however, that if you are starting your own sole practitioner law firm (with its own clients) malpractice insurance is something you’ll definitely want.
Consideration #4: You will quickly come to miss the non-attorney staff – CON
This was the first thing that hit me when I left the “comfort” of my big firm life and went out on my own. I knew how to be a great lawyer. I could research and write with the best of them. When it came time to do things like format a legal brief or arrange for service of process, I hadn’t a clue.
Back then, online concierge services like those that One Legal provides weren’t as widely accessible. As a result, I ended up working way more hours than I ever thought possible just trying to figure out things that used to be taken care of by my firm’s paralegals, administrative assistants, law clerks, word processors, law librarians, and others.
Consideration #5: It’s relatively easy to find work these days – PRO & CON
In yet another way, the internet has changed everything. Before online freelancing websites like Upwork or LawClerk came into existence, it was hard to find a steady stream of contract work. These days, all you need is a computer and a reliable WiFi signal and you’re in business.
A couple words of caution here, however. First, just because people from all over the world find you on a freelancing website and want you to do legal work for them does not mean you are licensed to practice law where they are located.
In fact, if you’re licensed in a state like California that doesn’t offer reciprocity with any other state, your opportunities will be severely limited. It may seem safe to just do one little project for them … but that is exactly the type of thing that will get you nailed for the “unlicensed practice of law.”
Also – and I could probably write a whole separate article on this one – there are a lot of lunatics out there looking for lawyers on freelancing websites. Just because someone professes to want to pay a lawyer doesn’t mean you should take on their cause.
Consideration #6: It’s lonely out there – CON
One of the great things about practicing law at a law firm is that you’re always surrounded by really smart attorneys who you can go to for guidance. Even though you’ll remain friends with many of them once you go out on your own, they’ll be a lot less willing to sit down with you for an hour to discuss your client’s legal issues. Plus, there are all sorts of ethical traps that arise when you start talking to lawyers you’re not affiliated with about your clients.
I’m certain I haven’t convinced you one way or another on the issue of freelance lawyering. What I have done, however, is raise some issues I wish someone had told me about before I left law firm life. Good luck and feel free to tell us about your freelance experiences below!