A reader writes:
Do you have any recommendations on how to pick up contract work from local attorneys or solos? I want to approach local firms to see what their needs are for subcontracting out work. Do you have any ideas on how one should go about doing this? I’m not looking to do contract work full time, but only for supplementary income until I get my firm off the ground.
Like my colleague Jon Stein, I’ve learned about contract work from both the giving and receiving end. This experience has given me some strong views about what works and what doesn’t. Here’s my advice below:
1. Can you deliver what you’re selling?
As a purchaser of contract services, my “Number 1” question is
whether you can deliver what you’re selling. If you propose to handle
research and writing tasks, then I expect that you’ve written more than
a moot court brief or a law review article. I don’t necessarily expect a
junior attorney to have a broad array of writing samples, but if I’m
going to hire you as an independent contractor (independent being the
operative term), I need to know that you have personally researched and
written, or at minimimum, substantially participated in the drafting of
legal memoranda and briefs. And I’ll want to see a couple of your best
samples, without having to ask. (as an aside, please be sure that your
samples don’t have typos or grammatical errors as that will disqualify
you from consideration right off the bat).
My point here is that many, many lawyers fancy themselves great legal
writers because they earned a decent grade in legal writing, held a spot on a journal or simply graduated from law school. But legal writers aren’t born, they’re made. Legal writing is an acquired and hard earned skill, no different from deposition skills, negotiating skills, courtroom skills or any other skills where we expect some
experience. You don’t become a legal writing expert just by going to
If you’re offering other services, like standing in for me at court or
representing a client at a deposition, I’ll also want to know what kind
of background you have. But here, depending upon the type of work
involved, I might be a little more lenient. For example, if I need an
attorney to defend a deposition that I don’t expect will be
controversial and isn’t particularly important, I might use a first
timer, if you can assure me that you can adequately prepare.
Finally, if I hire you and you spend time getting up to speed on using
LEXIS, bluebooking or other skills that you should already have, please
don’t bill me for that time.
2. Making the Pitch
If you are looking for contract work, DO NOT send out a mass mailing, as it will simply end up in the trash. A mass email is equally ineffective. Uncomfortable as it may be, your best approach is to get a list of lawyers from the local bar journal and make a few cold calls to introduce yourself and see if the lawyer has any need for your services. During the call, you can offer to send a resume and writing sample for future reference. Personally, this kind of approach has always impressed me. Having made cold calls myself, I know how uncomfortable they are and how much nerve they require. If someone’s willing to do that, I’m willing to give them a chance.
If you don’t feel comfortable making cold calls, then try to get out to any lawyer networking events, bar lunches and CLEs and introduce yourself to as many attorneys as you can. Bring plenty of business cards, along with a couple of resumes and writing samples in case you run into someone who expresses a real, immediate interest (you can follow up with the others after the event).
Since you have mentioned that you are also a practicing attorney, you need to make clear that you are willing to take on contract work. Many times, I meet young attorneys and think that I might have a piece of work to send their way to get them started (just as other attorneys helped me get my start). But I’m often reluctant to do so if I don’t know if they handle contract work. In fact, you may even consider investing in a second set of business cards that specify where you’re licensed and say that you provide contract services. I wouldn’t give these to prospective clients of course, but they can help busy attorneys remember that you’re out there.
3. What kinds of service can I provide?
Solo and small firm lawyers have a range of jobs that can be outsourced. As mentioned above, there’s legal research and writing as well as making court room appearances, handling depositions and small litigation matters that aren’t cost effective for a more experienced attorney. Finally, you can also offer pro hac vice and local counsel services to lawyers from out of state.
But if you’re creative, you can come up with a list of other services. For example – do you know anything about blogs? Why not figure out how to set up some basic, decent looking blogs in Typepad or Blogger and set them up for attorneys and charge a fee to keep them stocked with posts. You could also offer to ghost write articles for other lawyers for their marketing. Maybe you could attend seminars or listen to webinars and then provide a written summary for a lawyer. If you come up with a menu of tasks that you can provide beyond basic legal research and writing, you can get yourself in the door and make yourself more attractive to a wider range of attorneys.
4. What rates should I charge?
This question is very market specific. I practice in the DC area, which is a transient market because of the political scene. As a result, new people are often moving to town and may come with a spouse who’s an experienced attorney and in need of short term work. And DC has such a large lawyer population to begin with that there are always far more qualified lawyers than available positions. Consequently, I can go to a temp agency and hire excellent mid-level attorneys for $50 an hour, highly experienced attorneys for no more than $75 and new grads or junior lawyers in the $30-$40 range (which means that the attorney is getting an even smaller amount). In this market, if a new attorney approaches me asking for $75 an hour, I’m not going to pay it, not because I can’t afford it or it’s inherently unreasonable, but because it exceeds market.
If you want to get in the door and get experience, I would set your rates right at market. To determine market rates, you can ask around and find out what your colleagues have paid for contract work. Or, call a temp agency and say you’re looking to hire someone for a project and find out what kinds of rates the agency will pay.
You have probably heard that attorneys who use temps can pass on the cost, with mark-ups to clients – and you may believe that this justifies you charging a higher rate. That may be true in cases where the hiring attorney can pass your costs on to a paying client. But for solos and small firms, that is not always the case. Many times, busy solo and small firm lawyers will want to outsource less lucrative or contingency matters so that they can spend more time on higher billing cases or on marketing efforts to bring in better cases. Thus, unlike attorneys who pass the costs of contract lawyer on to clients, many solos eat the cost themselves and thus, may be more frugal with what they pay than if the costs could be assigned to a client and passed on. (David Giacalone, the blogging lawyer’s voice of conscience will say that it shouldn’t be this way and in some respects, he’s right).
I will say that after lack of competency, the primary reason that I’ve declined to use an attorney for contract services relates to cost. There are many contract attorneys whom I’d love to hire, but can’t afford and don’t have the proper project for them. And there are other contract attorneys who quite frankly, aren’t worth the rate they’ve demended.
5. Final thoughts
I have a soft spot for contract work because it’s how I got my start and what kept me going particularly when my daughters were very young and I was working part time. Contract work isn’t just a quick way to make some money, but it’s also a terrific way to work with other lawyers and make contacts. Though our profession gets a bad wrap, I’ve found that there are many decent lawyers out there willing to help new solos earn some money and get started. And though on the cusp of your solo adventure, you may feel like you’ll never be able to return the favor, someday, like me and many of my colleagues, you’ll find yourself in a position where you can hire other new solos and pay it forward.