Working on a project basis can help with flexibility
When St. Paul attorney Emerald Gratz lost her job at the state Attorney General’s office following a 2011 round of staff cuts, she figured that looking for full-time work was her only viable option.
But with a young daughter and a husband who’s also a full-time lawyer, Gratz figured there had to be another way, and there was: For the past 18 months, she’s been averaging about 20 hours a week working strictly as a freelance attorney.
Freelancing is a growing option for attorneys who want to work on their own but don’t want the hassle of running a solo practice. Freelance attorneys can generally be distinguished from contract attorneys by the absence of a middleman, usually in the form of a staffing agency. For better or worse, freelancers are in charge of finding their own clients – usually, other attorneys or firms that have a project too big for them to handle alone.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew flexibility was the bottom line,” said Gratz, who spent five years as a prosecutor for Commissioner of Public Safety. “I didn’t want to work as much as I was, but I was concerned about finding some work. When someone offered me freelance assignment, I took it.”
That led for an ideal level of work flexibility for her, and she’s not the only attorney to stumble on an ideal way to make a living without committing to a 40-plus-hour work week.
It can also be a lucrative way to escape the strictures of the 9-to-5 life: A 2012 study by Money magazine found that among part-time, self-employed workers, attorneys had the highest median hourly salary at $147.40. Gratz said what she’s been earning as a half-time freelancer rivals the full-time salary she used to get as a state employee.
“It’s a great way to do substantive work in an area you love, but on a schedule that can be a little more flexible,” said Minneapolis attorney Karin Ciano.
Ciano, who has freelanced since September 2011, has become the unofficial flag-bearer for Twin Cities freelance attorneys. She’s the Twin Cities director of Custom Counsel, a network of freelance attorneys that also has a presence in New York, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. Ciano also helps coordinate informal networking sessions for Twin Cities freelancers.
“I started out thinking I’d freelance as a supplement, and discovered after a few months that the supplement was my core business,” said Ciano.
The primary advantage of freelancing for attorneys is a level of flexibility that could never be found in a firm, corporate or solo proprietor setting.
“It’s a nice way to stay on top of things when you have too much work or you’re in an area that’s outside of your comfort zone,” said Minneapolis lawyer Martin A. Carlson, who has used Gratz on past projects. “It could be a challenge to the existing law firm model.”
Much lip service is paid in the legal industry to work-life balance, but freelancing actually seems to provide it.
“It’s ideal,” said Plymouth attorney Lynn Walters. “The ability to continue working on interesting legal issues and diversifying my expertise while maintaining some flexibility in my schedule is a perfect fit.”
Both sides benefit
The availability of freelancers is also a boon to full-time lawyers, especially solos. Many solos might not realize that when a case comes along that’s too good to turn down but too big to handle alone, temporary help is available. Ciano said most of her freelance clients are other solos or small firms who need help when a crisis hits but aren’t inclined to hire a full-time associate.
“Since I’m not interested in a full-time job or in stealing their clients, we can have a very productive business relationship,” she said.
A potential obstacle to finding freelance work can be the concerns of prospective clients regarding conflicts and confidentiality. Walters says her contract addresses both issues, and she does conflict checks before she takes on a case. “I have to make sure I’m only given the files I need so I’m not exposed to anything I shouldn’t be,” she said.
The other barrier for freelancers is letting the world know you’re out there and available. Solo attorneys especially might not know how to find you, and once they do, they can’t always be sure they can trust you.
The same holds true for freelancers. Gratz, who has been working mostly on litigation support projects, said one of her reservations about freelancing was the specter of having to chase down delinquent invoices – just the sort of administrative headache she was trying to avoid.
That’s where networking and comparing notes with fellow freelancers can pay dividends, she said: “I’ve been trying to find projects with people who at least know someone I know.”
But as with most independent contractors, the key to success for freelance attorneys is to hustle, hustle and hustle some more, according to Ciano.
“You need to be a self-starter and someone who can make the most of the supervision you have,” she said. “It’s helpful to be able to get up to speed quickly on a project. Lawyers often don’t realize they need help until they really need it.”
Contact Dan Heilman at firstname.lastname@example.org.