Like most people, when I meet someone new, I am asked the question: “What do you do?” This is a fairly easy question to answer, right? I can just say, "I am a lawyer". But I usually get the follow-up question: “What type of law do you practice?” This is where it gets a little more confusing. I tell them I am a freelance lawyer. Often this is followed by blank stares. Then, when I try to explain what I do (assist other lawyers and law firms with legal writing and research and any overflow litigation work they may have) I get the response: “Oh, so you are a sole practitioner.” Yes…no…not quite. While I have a lot in common with sole practitioners my practice is also very different. So I have decided to explain five ways in which freelance lawyers (or sometimes referred to as contract or project lawyers) are different than sole practitioners:
Number 1 – The Clients
I only work for other lawyers, law firms, or legal departments. Unlike sole practitioners, I do not provide legal advice directly to non-lawyers. This also means that I, and other freelance lawyers, have a much smaller client market than sole practitioners.
Number 2 – Predictability
In civil litigation, my area of practice, files can last for years. A sole practitioner's litigation files can be dormant for months and then catch on fire at a moment’s notice. Some people may thrive on this unpredictability. Me, not so much. Instead of juggling 100 files that could blow up at any moment, I prefer to focus on one or two assignments or projects at a time that have clear beginnings and ends. This means my client gets 100% (or close to it) of my attention on his or her file. However, this also means that I do not have the other 99 files to rely on once my current assignment is completed. A freelance lawyer must be okay with the potential peaks and lulls of freelance work.
Number 3 – The Hours
As the nature of the work is different, so are the hours. With my one-off, or discrete tasks, it is easier to plan my day or week. Of course I also take on rush assignments if needed and I am available. However, I don't have clients calling me at all hours like I did in private practice. My clients are all busy lawyers. Sure, there are definitely some weeks when I am working the same hours as I did in Big Law, but it is by choice.
Number 4 – Caliber and Nature of the Work
My lawyer clients always give me very interesting and challenging legal work. The instructions are also very clear and well thought out. Having a lawyer as a client means a lot less of the emotional support and psychological hand-holding that I used to provide my non-lawyer clients. When I was in private practice a lot of my day had nothing to do with the law itself. Now my job is mostly all about the law (which I love). Some of my lawyer clients have told me that they prefer providing that emotional support and hand-holding and aren't that keen about the actual law. This is how, as a freelance lawyer, I can complement a solo practice or law firm. My clients outsource the work they don't like so they can focus on the work that they do.
Number 5 - Flexibility
Most sole practitioners have an office, a legal assistant or law clerk, office equipment and furniture, etc. I have very little overhead. I can work from anywhere and I have a paperless 'office'. I have clients all over Ontario and I can meet with them over Skype, phone, email etc. Technology has given us this freedom. Also, if I am done my current assignment and want to take a vacation, or go into a firm and assist with a large litigation file or trial, I can go. Without ongoing files, I have nothing to leave behind for a fellow associate to “babysit”.
While freelance lawyers and sole practitioners have a lot in common, we are different in a few ways. Depending on his or her personality, a lawyer may be better suited for one type of practice over the other. I prefer the freelance way of life and I am not the only one. Check out my fellow freelancers at Flex Legal Network.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.