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Do You Actually Need a Full-Time Job? Try Freelance Legal Work

Travis Thickstun

Do You Actually Need a Full-Time Job? Try Freelance Legal Work

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Many attorneys who want flexibility and freedom have turned to freelance for meaningful, substantial legal work.

Opportunities for freelance legal work have even increased recently as law firms suddenly needed help in both litigation and transactional work—especially as courts opened up after COVID-19-related closures.

What’s a Freelance Lawyer?

A freelance attorney—sometimes called a contract attorney—works for a law firm, or for another lawyer, on an ad hoc basis, rather than representing clients directly. Many projects involve commercial litigation or transactional work. Freelance attorneys usually work remotely behind the scenes doing anything from document review, discovery, motions practice, legal research, or other project-based work.

“A freelance attorney is a lawyer who works for other lawyers,” said Laurie Rowen, co-founder of Montage Legal Group. “There’s always a hiring lawyer, who serves as counsel of record, who reviews and approves the freelance lawyer’s work product before submitting it to the court or the ultimate client.”

That’s actually a requirement of freelance work. “A freelance attorney must be working for another attorney,” noted Erin Giglia, who co-founded Montage Legal Group with Rowen.

A solo practitioner, in contrast, is a lawyer who works directly for clients. “Many lawyers set up small legal practices and work both as a freelance lawyer, working for other lawyers, and as a solo practitioner representing their own clients,” Rowen said.

Anyone admitted to practice law in the United States can do freelance legal work, but there are special considerations for different kinds of lawyers, Giglia said.

Why Go Freelance?

Most freelance attorneys are drawn to the flexibility and freedom the type of work offers, while still allowing them to do demanding legal work.

Rowen and Giglia co-founded Montage Legal Group in 2009 when they saw a gap in the marketplace between firms and freelancers.

They met at Snell & Wilmer, where they worked together as associates. When their daughters were born mere weeks apart, they changed course and chose to go out on their own as freelance attorneys. Rowen and Giglia added other freelance attorneys and Montage Legal Group became one of the first freelance attorney platforms. The team was featured in the ABA Journal in August 2011 for coining the term “freelance lawyer.”

“My husband traveled for work, so at least when my children were babies through the toddler years, working 80-plus hours in a law firm wouldn’t have worked for me,” Rowen said.

Freelancing gave Rowen challenging work to do so that she was able to keep her hand in the workforce and increase her family’s income. “I was 100 percent fulfilled by being able to spend time with my daughters, watch them grow up, and also handle legal work at the same time,” Rowen said. “The primary benefit of freelance work is flexibility and freedom. Freelancers can take on projects when they have time and pull back when they’re too busy. They can take on projects in areas of law that they love and pass on areas of law that aren’t their favorite.”

Giglia said some of the most successful freelance attorneys are those who’ve already been practicing for 5 to 20 years. They’re already trained and already know what to do.

But, Giglia added, an ambitious new lawyer who wants to do freelance work can seek out attorneys willing to assign a project to someone with less experience. The key is to be open to doing just about anything—provided it’s legal and ethical—that you’re initially asked to do.

“They’re going to ask you to do really basic legal work, and if you’re a new lawyer looking to be trained, you need to be okay with that,” reported Giglia.

Giglia and Rowen both stressed the importance of networking for new attorneys interested in earning a solid income from freelance work. Rowen said her first freelance project came from a phone call to a friend, just letting him know she’d left her law firm and was free to handle legal work on an hourly basis. One project turned into several, she said, and he referred her to many of his law school friends. She built a solid book of law firm clients prior to starting Montage Legal Group.

“Freelance lawyering is a great option for newly admitted lawyers, but law students will need to network even more than lawyers who already have business contacts from practicing law,” Rowen said. “While in-person networking is difficult during the pandemic, many bar associations
and legal organizations are having free online networking sessions. Join those sessions.”

Rowen said that just mentioning on a networking Zoom or over email that you recently graduated from law school and would love an opportunity to handle hourly legal projects is a great way to get started.

Giglia suggested networking in person, emailing attorneys you know, networking online on LinkedIn, and applying to either a freelance network (for high-level work) or a staffing company (for document review-type work).

“Many law firms are swamped,” Rowen said. “Offering to write a short article for the law firm’s blog could get your foot in the door and turn into actual substantive legal projects.”

Freelance Best Practices

If this is an area you’d like to pursue, once you get started, be mindful of the need to be consistently professional.

“Freelance lawyers should be as responsive as possible and continuously check in with their clients,” Rowen said. “Unlike an associate who may be sitting in the office next to the partner, the law firm may have never met the freelance lawyer and may not be confident in the freelance lawyer’s ability to handle substantive legal work.”

Quick responses to emails, turning in projects before a deadline, and frequently updating the hiring lawyer are all ways to make the hiring lawyer feel comfortable and, ultimately, give you more work, Rowen said.

In addition to being responsive and turning in projects quickly, Giglia suggested setting time expectations up front and communicating frequently with the firm.

Also consider having business cards printed up to distribute at events you attend; a web presence; access to LexisNexis, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law (if they’re not provided by the client); and whether malpractice insurance is necessary.

What You Might Earn

The pay for a freelance lawyer ranges based on the level of experience, Rowen said.

“A newly admitted lawyer who just graduated law school should be flexible with rates, as those are significantly lower than rates for a former partner with 20 years in a large law firm,” Rowen said.

A freelance lawyer’s rate is not that lawyer’s billable rate, she added. If, for example, the law firm would pay $200,000 to hire an associate to bill 2,000 hours per year, expect to be paid about $100 as a freelance lawyer.

“The law firm for which the freelance lawyer works will bill that freelancer out at a much higher rate to their own clients, making a profit off the freelance lawyer’s rate,” Rowen said. “The freelance lawyer’s rate is more in line with what the law firm could pay hourly to hire a full-time associate.”

Rates range from $25–30 per hour for document review, $30–50 per hour for new attorneys, and up to $75–250 per hour or more for experienced attorneys, Giglia said.

“Setting a rate will depend on your experience level, the project, the area of law, and your own personal decision,” Giglia said.

Rates for specialized or complex areas of law, such as health care, transactional, or tax, are higher, Giglia said.

The Challenges You’ll Face

“The upside to freelance work is flexibility,” Rowen said. “Flexibility, however, comes along with the fact that the work is incredibly unpredictable. Freelancers sometimes feel either too busy or too slow, which can be especially difficult for new lawyers.”

That’s where Montage Legal Group and other networks for freelance lawyers, like Hire an EsquireLegalBee, and LawyerExchange help overcome the unpredictability of freelancing.

Ethical considerations also come into play. They include conflicts of interest, aiding and abetting in the unlicensed practice of law, the duty of competence, the duty to inform the client, fees charged to the client, the duty to preserve client confidences, fee-splitting and other financial arrangements, and malpractice insurance.

Giglia cautions against using an “of counsel” title; it’s appropriate only for a close, personal, continuous, and regular relationship with a particular firm. The title may also impute conflicts of interest. The best practice is to avoid being called “of counsel” on a law firm’s website.

“If you’re a new lawyer looking to build up your resume, then maybe it’s good for you to be on the law firm’s website, if you’ve considered all the other issues,” Giglia said.

Both experienced and new attorneys who want flexibility and freedom may benefit from freelance legal work.