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How to freelance without going into freefall

When attorney Lynn Walters decided to give up the comfort of a bi-weekly paycheck for a more flexible schedule and a better work-life balance, she knew she had to make a choice between solo practice and freelance.

For Walters, a Minnesota attorney and mother of three who spent six years at private civil litigation firm before going off on her own in 2012, the decision was surprisingly simple.

“Once I made the decision to explore freelance,” she said, “and having some experience in the legal field and seeing how overworked people could make themselves, particularly solos or people in small firms, I felt there was a need for licensed and experienced attorneys to fill in that gap.”

She’s not alone.

Statistics suggest thousands of attorneys are at least considering freelance work, according to registrations and work requests on sites such as FreelanceLaw, Elance and Custom Counsel.

“There are lots of us,” Walters said. “There are more of us all the time. And, if you go to conferences and you talk to people about the future of law, this is the future. We are very much on trend, and I think eventually this is going to be seen as a very normal career path.”

Most often freelancers work for other attorneys, usually as an independent contractor, which is why freelancing often is synonymous with being a contract attorney.

“The work itself is like an associate,” explained Karin Ciano, an attorney and co-founder of the Minnesota Freelance Attorney Network, which has about 50 members, including Walters. “You’re basically being the junior person. You bill at a lower rate. You are doing work that the hiring attorney supervises. And, basically, your aim is to make the hiring attorney look good and more effective.”

But, Ciano explained, unlike in the past, when freelance work mostly was relegated to the unemployed and the inexperienced, many attorneys now are making contracting their main career focus.

“We finally have people who want to do this as their profession,” she said. “That’s the big innovation. There are always people cycling through, but what’s different now is you have folks who could be associates or partners at firms, who are choosing [freelance] for flexibility or work-life balance. … I’ve been happy to see that established lawyers are accepting it.”

Weighing the good, bad

So, how do you know if freelance is the right choice for you?

“Thinking about why it’s a good move for you is really the key for me,” Ciano said. “For me, it’s all the entrepreneurial-ness of being a solo, but you also have to play well with other attorneys. If you can do that, that’s a good clue that freelancing might be good for you.”

Free_fall-attorneyWalters suggested taking a hard look at your own best practices.

“Some people really need that work setting to go to and get motivated to get work done,” she said, “and some people work better in their own setting.”

Though Ciano and Walter agreed the financial uncertainties have to be considered, they both have enjoyed the freedom and ability to better direct their career paths and take only assignments they find interesting.

Both attorneys suggested building up a nest egg before making the switch, since many freelancers wind up relying on savings until they establish a consistent clientele.

Milwaukee attorney Nate Cade said he thought he had weighed all those factors when he registered as a potential freelancer on Elanace.com. Despite the uncertainties, he said he thought freelance work would not only be a logical extension of his solo practice, but also a chance to earn extra income.

“I had an expectation that it would be a little more substantive in terms of what they were looking for,” said Cade, who started his own practice in 2013 after 17 years working at two larger firms.

He soon realized the opportunities were not nearly as lucrative as he had hoped, however.

“I came to realize that there’s not a ton of money there,” he said. “The stuff they’re looking for freelance is really low in terms of an hourly rate. People were posting like $50 an hour, $35, stuff like that. … Some of the assignments are half an hour here, an hour there. Some of those assignments you spend more time communicating to get the assignment than you spend doing the work.”

Cade said he decided he’s “not that desperate.”

“If you’re not employed full time, $25, $35, $45 an hour might be a soluble amount if you have no overhead,” he said. “But … you can do legal aid or public defender work for more than that. I just decided it’s not for me.”

A workable rate

Based on the growing number of freelancers, it’s obvious that not every attorney reaches that conclusion.

But, Walters and Ciano said, many do struggle with pay, specifically how to set a rate that reflects their abilities and meets their financial needs without pricing themselves out of the market.

“My scariest moment was when I sent out my first invoice,” said Ciano, who went freelance in 2011 after retiring as a federal clerk. “I thought, ‘What’s going to happen?’ Then, 30 days later I got a check for the amount I asked for.”

A lot of freelancers ask for less than they’re worth, she said.

“There’s always pressure to drop rates,” Ciano said, “if you’re hungry, if you’re looking for work, if it’s an interesting matter. …Then I remind myself, ‘I’m entitled to real lawyer money.’”

For Ciano, part of figuring out her rate came down to simple math.

“Just like private practice, you will have fat months and lean months, and you can’t predict which will be which,” she said. “So, you have to figure out a way to get through the lean months.”

She recommended lawyers determine the amount of money they need every day to stay in business. Then figure out how many hours of the day you want to work, and that’s one way to set your rate.

Try pulling federal fee petitions, she added, to find out what others are making.

“So, you see what judges thought was reasonable,” Ciano said. “And then you discount from that, because that’s your value.”

Once you’ve determined an amount, don’t be afraid to be afraid to explain how attorneys can afford it.

“I remind them, ‘Sneak me into your bill, or stick my invoice under your bill as one of your expenses and the client will pay for it,’” Ciano said. “Once you frame it out for them that, ‘Yes this could be a benefit, and I could have my client pay for it,’ a little light bulb goes off.”

Many attorneys even reference freelancers in their engagement letters and retainer agreements, explaining that they might be working with independent contractors and if so, listing the fee, so there are no surprises.

Bringing in clients

So, you’ve decided to go freelance. And you’re pretty sure what to charge. Now, how do you find clients?

“You have to be a very patient person,” Ciano said. “You can’t expect it to be a quick process, which can be very hard, especially in the first few months.”

She suggested using websites such as LinkedIn, Elance and Custom Counsel to help advertise availability.

But there’s no substitute for getting out and meeting people.

“That’s how I started,” Walters said. “I came from a firm, and it wasn’t a particularly large firm, but I wasn’t a member of the solo, small community; and that’s the community I felt had the most need for a freelancer. I, essentially, felt like I was starting fresh.”

She went to bar association meetings, met attorneys for coffee and lunch, and asked if they knew of anyone else who would be good to meet. The important thing, Walters said, is to be genuine and not approach every encounter as a potential business transaction.

“It’s more about building that relationship organically,” she said. “It’s a matter of getting to know people and the community you’re targeting and being patient.”

And, once you’ve got their attention, Ciano said, don’t be shy.

“I think you need to be comfortable talking about what you do. Many times I chat with folks and they say, ‘Oh, I could never market myself. I could never sell myself.’ But, really, all you have to do is talk about what you do,” she said. “And if you like it, it’s obvious and they will remember you; and, hopefully, hire you.”

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