Could freelance be the future for lawyers? Tips & advice for those going solo
Article by Emma Williams
Becoming a freelance lawyer almost seems a contradiction in terms. You’ve been through law school and you’ve worked those long hours as a junior associate in a law firm. Now, unless you have the Tom Cruise experience in ‘The Firm’, you’re working towards a future partnership and all that goes with it. Or are you?
The other side of life
How much time are you giving your firm? And, how much time does that leave for family, friends and the things you really enjoy. Flexible working sounds like an attractive alternative — if your firm offers it. You get to work where and when you want to and you improve work/life balance. But, there’s a stage beyond that – going freelance.
You’re now working for yourself and the work/life balance is there, although you’d better forget the partnership dream. Making big rewards is now in your hands. So, how feasible is it to work as a freelance lawyer and what are the opportunities?
Rise of the accountants and outsourcers
Traditionally the legal industry was sheltered from external threats. But in more recent years, innovative accountancy firms, outsourcers, and alternative service providers have expanded the sector, making the industry increasingly competitive.
This has put strains on many law firms and their employees, who are fighting for work in a now hugely competitive market, where more and more consumers are looking for affordability, convenience, and online legal services. As a result, the way legal services are being provided is transforming, with many lawyers going freelance.
Opening new doors
Freelancing in law is already a reality. Adidas, American Express, Barclays, Google, and Vodafone are just some of the major corporations using the service and there are a growing number of freelance agencies claiming to have hundreds of high-caliber lawyers for hire on their books.
As a freelance, you have the opportunity to work directly for clients or law firms, or indirectly through agencies that provide work through their clients. That means you have the opportunity to take on a much wider variety of work than you would in a firm. Clients consider using freelance lawyers for a number of reasons. They may want to reduce their legal costs by avoiding the higher charges of a law firm. They might be looking for specialist legal skills that their regular law firm can’t provide. Or, they have urgent legal work that a law firm can’t handle in a short timeframe.
Law firms that use freelance staff hire for similar reasons. They may need additional resources to handle overload or they have a client brief that requires specialist skills or knowledge. They may also want to reduce their costs on certain briefs. Typically, attorney fees are usually 33% of the funds recovered for the client in personal injury cases and usually 25% in workers’ compensation cases. Hiring freelance staff on a regular basis reduces overall staffing costs because a freelance fee is generally lower than the total cost of an employee’s salary, benefits, and associated office expenses.
The right approach
If you want to succeed as a freelance lawyer, you have to offer something that your clients really need. For a start, you need the qualifications required to practice law. That’s basic, but what other qualifications or specialist skills can you offer — remember you’re now in competition with in-house lawyers and other freelancers.
As well as qualifications, experience counts when you’re pitching your services. So, it pays to assess your qualifications, experience, and specialist skills and knowledge to see what makes you special. You want to make clients feel confident that they can trust you to handle their brief effectively. If they choose the wrong freelancer, their personal reputation is on the line.
No more 9 to 5
One of the great enablers for freelance lawyers is technology. You don’t have to be in an office to do the work, carry out research, or take part in meetings. A laptop and a broadband account mean you can work with clients anywhere in the US, or in any other country. That could open big opportunities working for US clients with global offices or overseas clients that need the skills and knowledge of a US lawyer.
You can forget the restrictions of time zones, expensive business travel, or fixed working hours. You work when your clients need you. And, it doesn’t matter where you work. COVID-19 may have slowed down claims, but it has put home-working firmly on the map, but you’re essentially free to work anywhere.
Money, money, money
Okay, here’s the downside of being a freelancer. Nobody owes you a living. You haven’t got the comfort of a regular salary and, like an actor, you could find yourself resting between roles. So, you have a choice of risk or reward. If you’re successful, you have the opportunity to exceed any expected salary level.
And, in an uncertain economy, you won’t face the possibility of redundancy. If you’re working directly for a client, you negotiate a fee. You should base that fee on the amount you want to pay yourself and factor in the cost of any direct or indirect expenses. When you work through an agency, they negotiate the fee with the client, and they retain a percentage of the fee as a service charge when they pay you.
Don’t forget, you still have to pay taxes as a freelancer and you have to make provision for health insurance, liability insurance, professional association fees, and retirement pension. You can reduce your tax bill by claiming legitimate business expenses, including heating and lighting any part of your home used as an office, technology, stationery, and business travel. Most important, keep accurate records of all business income, expenses, and make sure to regularly invest.
Take the next step
A career as a freelance lawyer is a practical reality and it’s growing in popularity with both clients and law firms. Convinced? It’s time to take the law into your own hands.