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A Contract Lawyer by any Other Name

contract lawyer vs. freelance lawyerJust as the word “lawyer” has, for many, come to be synonymous with BigLaw associates collecting huge paychecks in exchange for 2300+ annual billables, for many the term “contract lawyer” refers to an attorney who, unable to obtain a permanent job doing “real” legal work, sits in front of a computer screen day after day doing document review. The job market for this type of contract lawyer is the subject of a recent National Law Journal article called Contract Lawyers: Cheaper by the Hour.

According to the article, work has been slow for contract lawyers, pay rates are starting to fall, and some staffing agencies have gone belly-up. Not surprisingly, the contract lawyers reporter Julie Kay writes about are dissatisfied with pretty much everything about their jobs, from the pay rate (generally $35 and hour in New York and Washington, with rates lower in other cities) to the working conditions to the uninspiring nature of the work itself.

But there is another path for contract lawyers, one that comes with intellectually fulfilling work, excellent working conditions and a comfortable living. I’m referring, of course, to becoming an independent contract lawyer.

Independent contract lawyers are a small but growing cadre of solo practitioners who, enabled by technology, work on a project-by-project basis for other lawyers. Kimberly Alderman is a perfect example of this new breed of lawyers. Kimberly lives most of the year in the wilds of Alaska (though she’s currently alighting in the much balmier Southwest), where she combines a practice helping lawyers with legal research and writing, trial preparation and very occasional document review with high-level scholarship in the area of cultural property law.

Of course, not all independent contract lawyers lead such colorful lives. I live in the New York City suburbs with my husband, two kids and three dogs: you can’t get much more average than that. But, like Kimberly, I love my practice niche (I concentrate exclusively in legal research and writing), and would never give it up for a full-time gig in a fancy skyscraper.

The National Association of Freelance Legal Professionals encourages lawyers who follow this path to call themselves “freelancers”:

The term “contract attorney” has often been used to identify any lawyer who works on a non-employee-for-the-law-firm basis. There are a large number of staffing agencies that serve as the “employer” and provide lawyers for law firms to use on a temporary basis. The same happens with paralegals, legal assistants and secretaries, interpreters and court reporters, though the appellation of “contract” is not usually applied to these other professionals.

Working for a staffing agency, however, is not the same as working as a freelancer, and confusion of the terms undermines the perception of legal freelancing as a whole.

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The key difference between contract attorney (or paralegal, etc.) and a freelancer by definition is the identity of employer. A staffing agency simply does not have the incentive to provide a contract legal professional with any benefit other than sufficient pay to get them to come to work every day that they want them to come to work. A freelancer does not wait for a phone call and then jump when asked to work here or there on some boring project or another that will simply pay the bills. Freelancers are employed by the only people that have the freelancers’ best interests at heart—themselves.

And over at Law and More, Jane Genova asks probing questions that get to the heart of the issue:

Why are men and women with law degrees and all the skills—analysis, writing, client management—which go with that education and training enduring this way of making a living? Are they unduly optimistic that if they just hang in as gypsy workers they will eventually land full-time jobs? Yeah, like Cravath or Jones Day recruits from the temp pool. Are they so passionate about law that they will do only that sort of work? Are they simply unimaginative about pulling together their abilities and creating something more lucrative, more their own, and more dignified? And/or do they lack the courage to leave the path they were pursuing since probably undergraduate days?

Your law degree shouldn’t be a trap: it should be a liberating, empowering force. To find out more about how you can create a lucrative, dignified practice providing services to other lawyers—whether you choose to call yourself a “contract lawyer,” a “freelance lawyer” or something else entirely—read my GP|Solo Magazine article on starting a legal research and writing practice.

Comments (4)

  1. Reply Michael Radigan

    Nice article Lisa.

  2. Reply Martha

    Very well said! With the changing climate in the legal profession these days and intensified scrutiny by potential clients regarding where the money goes, I have high hopes that the difference between contract attorneys and freelance attorney-consultants will be more widely recognized.

  3. […] Solomon, a fellow contract lawyer over at Legal Research and Writing Pro, posted A Contract Lawyer by Any Other Name, in which she gives yours truly a shout out and appropriately slams the NLJ article I discussed in […]

  4. Reply Joan Presky

    I need to learn more about working as a lawyer on an independent contractor basis. I actually have a job with a firm, but also do outside contract work. I want to move away from the firm and toward having a network of lawyers who will turn to me on a project basis. In other words, I want to be independent; this is not a stepping stone on the way to a permanent job. Any advice gratefully received.

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