Freelance Attorney: Pros and Cons

Can you make a living going the freelance route?

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If you’re an unemployed attorney, you’ve probably heard the “Just hang out a shingle!” advice. But for new lawyers, the idea of just declaring yourself open for business and going out to get individual clients (to pay for what legal expertise, exactly?) can be intimidating. Luckily, there’s another way to get started — you can practice as a freelance attorney, where (instead of working directly for clients you procure) you’ll work for other lawyers, doing work they’re too busy to do themselves.

Let’s look at some pros and cons, and then we’ll dive into the logistics.

Pros of Working As a Freelance Lawyer

The life of a freelance attorney has a lot of positive aspects, particularly if you don’t have many other options! Here are a few upsides:

  • You’ll rapidly be exposed to a variety of legal practice areas. Not sure what type of law you’d like to specialize in? Freelancing for a variety of different lawyers and learning to do whatever work walks in the door (hopefully with some supervision) will expose you to the realities of many different types of legal practice. If you haven’t found the right fit yet, exploring new areas of the law (and getting paid to do so) can be hugely beneficial to your career development.
  • You’ll develop skills that you can use in the future, wherever your career takes you. As a freelance lawyer who constantly has to learn new things, you’ll rapidly improve your legal resume and your confidence. After you’ve done one real estate closing or drafted one trust agreement, you’ll start to see that you’re able to learn things quickly when necessary. In addition to substantive legal skills, you’ll be forced to work on your networking and business development skills (how else are you going to eat?), which can only help later in your career when you might find yourself in a more traditional legal role.
  • You’ll learn how to run a business. In today’s uncertain legal profession, having real-world experience running a business can be hugely valuable. Whether you’re advising startup companies or working in-house in a corporate context, having practical business experience will enhance your legal practice. And, if all else fails, you’ll know that you can run a business, making solo practice far less intimidating.

    Cons of Working As a Freelance Lawyer

    But life as a freelance lawyer isn’t all unicorns and roses. There are drawbacks:

    • Much of you initial time and effort won’t be paid. As with any new business, you’ll have startup expenses as you ramp up, but you won’t necessarily have the cash flow to cover business cards, networking lunches, and so on (not to mention your rent and student loans). While it’s possible to start on a shoestring, cash flow is likely to be an issue in the beginning, until your networking efforts start to bear fruit and you’re working regularly.
    • Your earnings will be unstable and somewhat unpredictable. As a freelance lawyer, you’ll likely have times of feast and times of famine. If you’re working on a trial team or helping with a huge document production, you might be flush with cash. Weeks later, when the trial is over and the production is finished, you might find yourself twiddling your thumbs waiting for the phone to ring. Although you can smooth out some of the lumps with diligent budgeting and saving, the ebb and flow is almost inevitable.
    • You’ll need to be “on call” much of the time. For attorneys to trust you and give you work, you need to be available. If this sounds like a real bummer, and you’d rather have your weekends free, a career as a freelance attorney might not be the best choice!

      If freelance lawyering is a career path that sounds appealing, take a look at this very useful book for more details: The Independence Track: How to Succeed as a Freelance Attorney.

      Read on for the next part of this series: How to Get Started as a Freelance Attorney.