Freelance attorney Celeste Boyd writes today’s post on what you need to know if you want to be a contract lawyer / freelance attorney:
In the past couple of years since my business cards started proclaiming me a “Freelance Attorney,” I’ve encountered a lot of curiosity from other lawyers who have the impression that freelancing (taking overflow legal work from other attorneys) offers an easy way out of the generally hectic life of most traditional attorney jobs. Of course, I think some of this is my fault: the way I tend to describe my day-to-day life (“I work in my pajamas, don’t have a daily commute, and get to hit the gym at down times instead of during the pre- or post-work rush”) does make life as a freelancer sound pretty luxurious.
The truth is, freelancing can be a great option for some attorneys (provided your career plans don’t include someday being a Supreme Court Justice or the managing partner at a mega-firm), but as with most career decisions, people tend to gloss over some of the less appealing aspects of the path while dreaming of life without a boss, a commute, or client drama. In the interest of helping other people avoid some of the misconceptions I had when I started full-time freelancing, let me point out some of the, well, less-than-green grass on the other side.
Freelancing means starting your own business.
Being a small business owner comes with flexibility and autonomy, but it also comes with having to think about things like choosing a software to use for time tracking and invoicing; replenishing your own office supplies, and filing slightly more complicated taxes. None of these “administrative” tasks is particularly onerous on its own, but when you add them all up, they can definitely take up more time than you’re used to if you work at a law firm where most of the administration is done for you.
Freelancing: not an easy way to get some extra cash while you’re “between jobs.”
It seems unlikely that the folks advising out-of-work attorneys to “just pick up some contract work until you find a job” have spent much time trying to find freelance work. If you want to do something more substantive than document review work in the basement of a big firm, the work you want is not likely to fall into your lap without a significant time investment. This makes freelancing a terrible “backup” plan, since you’ll probably have to put enough time into finding work that you’re better off just investing that time in finding the traditional job you really want.
Freelancing is not for the introverted . . . or the extroverted.
Freelancing requires the same set of legal research and writing skills that you need to succeed in a law firm environment, but it also requires an almost paradoxical personality. On the one hand, you have to be extroverted enough to be an extreme networker—and I use that phrase in much the same way one would say “extreme snowboarder” or “extreme Star Trek enthusiast.” Finding your own work means attending lots of lawyer-laden events, meeting as many other attorneys as you can, and then being charming enough to sell them on using your services—none of which is work for the shrinking violet type.
On the other hand, you can’t be so extroverted that you cringe at the thought of working from home, which, as anyone who does it can tell you, can be pretty lonely business sometimes. Most people don’t actively crave “water cooler” talk in an office environment, but you’d be surprised what you miss once it’s gone!
Let me be clear about one thing: I love my life as a freelancer. I love the fact that I get to do interesting legal work in a variety of different substantive areas, but I don’t have to worry about finding a new job every year or two when the military moves us to new and exotic locations like rural North Carolina. But freelancing is not for everyone, and I’m a big believer in making major life decisions with your eyes wide open. If you’re thinking of joining those of us in non-traditional lawyer land, hopefully these words of caution will help you make an informed decision, and/or cushion some of the initial shocks of the transition from “lawyer” to “legal entrepreneur.”
Celeste Boyd is licensed in New Mexico and North Carolina and a graduate of Yale Law School. She has worked for large corporations, nonprofits, private firms, and solo practitioners, on projects spanning a wide variety of issues across many areas of law.
Check out her website for more information on her freelance legal practice.