Supplemental Income: Top Tips for Tough Times
A practical reality in today’s tough economic times is supporting yourself with a steady income from your new, or even well established, solo or small firm practice. In some cases, it may be necessary to supplement your income with money from another source, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. This article suggests tips and strategies.
Before You Begin
Use all available resources to plan ahead. Your career services office, malpractice insurer, state ethics board, and local, state, and national bar associations can offer valuable tips and insight into any challenges you might face. Some of these organizations may be able to offer consultations or mentorships. Getting active with your solo or small practice group can be invaluable. Also some states offer continuing legal education programs for solo practitioners that may also offer some insight on financing your practice. Check with your local continuing legal education provider for course offerings.
Traditional Supplemental and Law-Related Jobs
Some attorneys manage to work part-time in law libraries, doing legal research for other attorneys, legal filing, and legal editing. Some also work as notaries, bail bondsmen, and process servers. Many attorneys find these law-related sources of revenue are compatible with establishing or maintaining a law practice, as they find themselves in the same vicinity as the courts and other venues associated with the legal system. Thus they may more easily combine these jobs with being available for the work of an attorney.
One attorney who works part-time at a law library is also able to reserve space there to meet with his clients when he is not actively working his library job. Because of the library’s proximity to the courts, travel issues, travel time, and travel costs are minimized for his practice. It also saves money on office space, as he does not require conference facilities.
A possible downside to raising revenue in the law-related sphere is the potential for conflicts. If you accept criminal law work or judicial appointments to represent indigents in criminal matters, work as a bail bondsman may create conflicts of interest. To avoid ethical quandaries, money-making ventures that have less nexus to some types of actual legal work may be the safer bet.
Many solo attorneys supplement their income through traditional teaching roles. Obvious alternatives, such as adjunct law faculty, come to mind, but you may also want to explore other teaching revenue sources as well.
Traditional K-12 education can be a good fit for some attorneys while developing their solo practice. The flexibility of substitute teaching can offer some income—even benefits—while the solo or small firm practice grows. Check with your state’s education department to see what certification is required to go this route. Sometimes a teaching certification is not required for “subbing.” In other places, when a license is required there may be an alternate or streamlined certification/licensing process for those who already have a degree. Others take part-time jobs as school coaches or school bus drivers.
Typically, private schools, colleges, vocational, and technical schools do not require teaching certification or licensure. A lawyer can teach business law, paralegal classes, or even legal secretarial skills. Community education, tutoring, teaching CLE courses, or LSAT prep courses may also be additional sources for income.
Sales and Service Industry Options
Retail sales on evenings and weekends has always been a tried-and-true mainstay for lawyers growing a solo or small firm practice. Many attorneys stay on at clothing retailers for the discount on professional attire even after their financial needs subside.
Insurance, real estate, and financial product sales are also popular options. Just as with traditional law-related activities, though, these sales positions can increase your chances of running afoul of ethics rules when potential conflicts of interest and prohibited client business transactions exist. It is best to refer to lawyer ethics rules before taking on this kind of work.
In the service industry, tax preparation and the hospitality or food service industry are potential avenues of work. One attorney found his job as a hotel desk clerk a good fit with his law practice schedule, and another enjoyed her part-time work as a travel agent. Some attorneys also work as mental health counselors where certified, or even “life coaches.”
Turn a Hobby into Income
Do you have a hobby that you are passionate about? Turn it into cash. Some people give lessons or tours or sell items related to their hobby. There are solo practitioners who give piano, swimming, foreign language, or horseback riding lessons. And some teach yoga, martial arts, aerobics, or are personal athletic trainers. Other hobbies include photography, dance, and catering.
Do you love the state fair? One attorney shuts down the practice once per year and takes a working vacation with his family to run a successful food vendor business with excellent profits for that week. Another takes people on chartered fishing excursions.
The big benefit to these types of activities is that they can often be schedule after working hours and on weekends so that you’re still able to do legal work and engage in practice development on weekdays.
Think Outside the Box
There are lawyers who choose very unique supplemental professions to help make ends meet, such as massage therapy, dog walking, and beauty industry jobs. One attorney with small kids at home sells baby carriers and other baby items online and in local demonstrations. Others have an e-Bay store. The possibilities for online sales are only limited by your imagination.
Some lawyers who are just starting out report great satisfaction in continuing an existing job even when transitioning to the legal field. One solo practitioner still works evenings and weekends at his college security job. Others supplement with work at local museums, other event venues as event planners, or even in movie theaters.
Loans or Grants
Some thriving solo practitioners suggest that outside employment and sources of revenue can take the focus away from developing and creating a strong practice. Those practitioners often recommend taking out loans or applying for small business grants until the practice begins to be self-supporting. If this sounds more appealing then be sure to consider any factors that may make it easier to qualify for loans and grants, such as minority, gender, or veteran status. The Small Business Administration can be a resource on these types of programs.
The ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct is an invaluable guide to any ethical issues you may face in maintaining dual sources of income. The manual is available in law libraries, at www.abanet.org/cpr/pubs/manual.html, and on Westlaw in the database “ABA-BNA.” The manual is equipped with digests for thousands of state and local bar association ethics opinions. The American Bar Association also operates “ETHICSearch”—a research service for both members and nonmembers. Note, however, that the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and ethics opinions are advisory only. The ethics rules, laws, and court decisions in your own jurisdiction are controlling. Information about ETHICSearch is located at /www.abanet.org/cpr/ethicsearch/home.html A bibliography of legal ethics resource materials are available in law libraries and at www.abanet.org/cpr/ethicsearch/resource.html.
Familiarize yourself with rules on soliciting, client relationships, conflicts of interest, and accepting clients. One solo practitioner suggests that an intake questionnaire for potential clients should make very clear the referral source, so one can spot any conflicts before they arise. You should also be aware of any ethics codes or regulations that govern your nonlegal employment or source of income. For example, if you have a real estate license, you must be familiar with your state’s code of conduct and ethics rules of that profession. There is no substitute for reading a copy of any such rules alongside your state and local lawyer ethics rules to determine whether there might be any conflict between the two sets of rules.
New Cautions about Moonlighting
Courts in Utah and Florida have found breach of fiduciary duty when firm employees have used firm time and resources to do outside work, such as developing a solo practice on the side. See, e.g., Florida Bar v. Kossow, Fla., No. SC03-1900, 5/19/05, and Prince, Yeates & Geldzahler v. Young, Utah, No. 20020347, 3/30/04. If you are currently employed by a law firm, it is very important to keep any of your solo practitioner work separate from your normal work hours and without using office resources.
A similar situation can exist with a nonlegal employer as well. If you have an employment contract or employee manual, read it carefully to determine if there are any restrictions on outside employment. You must also constantly monitor these regulations, and any changes to them, for any potential conflicts. If there are human resource personnel at your place of employment, they may be able to answer your questions in this regard. If there is no employee manual or contract, inquire about any outside employment restrictions and get the response in writing.
Seek Support to Reduce Stress
Finally, when you look for additional sources of income, it’s helpful to communicate and network with those who have successfully augmented their solo practice with additional sources of income. Many people have already navigated this territory. You may find them among your law school classmates, social and business networking groups, and bar associations. Socializing and even relaxing together with your colleagues can go a long way to alleviate your fears and reduce stress in these tough economic times.
• Your legal malpractice practice insurer:
http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/lpl/purchasersmaterials.html (Tips on finding the right coverage for you; it may also have a consulting service for tips and advice.)
• The U.S. Small Business Administration:
http://www.sba.gov/ (Will help you create a business plan considering many factors to ensure your success. Offers counseling, mentors, and resources regarding loans, etc.)
• Your local, state, and the American Bar Association ( www.abanet.org)
Gretchen Otto is a lawyer and freelance author residing in Texas.
© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.