My Shingle

MyShingle Q&A: Finding Contract Work

by Carolyn Elefant on January 2, 2006 · 29 comments

in Business Models, Outsourcing & Hiring, Questions & Advice

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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
law school.

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.

Good luck!

  • Laura

    Don’t forget Deborah Arron’s and Deborah Guyol’s excellent book: “A complete guide to contract lawyering.” Now in its 3rd edition (2004)from Decision Books (also available at your local bookstores or ABA and other online book sellers)
    Laura the law librarian

  • Laura

    Don’t forget Deborah Arron’s and Deborah Guyol’s excellent book: “A complete guide to contract lawyering.” Now in its 3rd edition (2004)from Decision Books (also available at your local bookstores or ABA and other online book sellers)
    Laura the law librarian

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Laura – Excellent point. I used the Arron/Guyol book back when I did contract work and it’s one of the first books that I included in our online guide here: http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3/my_shingle/online-guide0505.html
    For those who don’t know, Complete Guide to Contract Lawyering is very complete: it gives advice to lawyers who want to contract their services out as well as to those who want to hire contract attorneys. Also, references to state ethics opinions on contract lawyer issues. And, the book is reasonably priced.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Laura – Excellent point. I used the Arron/Guyol book back when I did contract work and it’s one of the first books that I included in our online guide here: http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3/my_shingle/online-guide0505.html
    For those who don’t know, Complete Guide to Contract Lawyering is very complete: it gives advice to lawyers who want to contract their services out as well as to those who want to hire contract attorneys. Also, references to state ethics opinions on contract lawyer issues. And, the book is reasonably priced.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethicalesq David Giacaloneda

    Carolyn, I’m not sure just what I’m allegedly disagreeing with. All my thoughts on this topic can be found in the post when outsourcing, just pass on the cost (June 28, 2005), and our outsourcing decision affirmed (by me) (June 29, 2005). Digging them up just now took up about all the energy I have left today.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethicalesq David Giacaloneda

    Carolyn, I’m not sure just what I’m allegedly disagreeing with. All my thoughts on this topic can be found in the post when outsourcing, just pass on the cost (June 28, 2005), and our outsourcing decision affirmed (by me) (June 29, 2005). Digging them up just now took up about all the energy I have left today.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Ilysiana/ Nicole Black

    Thanks for another great post. I recently opened up shop as a contract attorney. I took a short hiatus from the law after my first child was born after practicing for 8 years in the areas of criminal defense and civil litigation.
    This post was very informative, both in terms of pricing and strategizing. You’ve inspired me. I may very well make some cold calls this week.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Ilysiana/ Nicole Black

    Thanks for another great post. I recently opened up shop as a contract attorney. I took a short hiatus from the law after my first child was born after practicing for 8 years in the areas of criminal defense and civil litigation.
    This post was very informative, both in terms of pricing and strategizing. You’ve inspired me. I may very well make some cold calls this week.

  • James

    As an attorney who just opened my own solo office (after one year clerking and one year at a boutique litigation firm), I have done a little contract work for the firm where I used to work. Those experiences have led me to question whether contract work is worth doing, especially at the rates Carolyn suggests. (I was making $20 an hour for my contract jobs.)
    What I found was that the contract work pulled me away from the work that would build my practice — sending out direct mail (which I do a lot of), studying up on the law, meeting with current clients, and hanging out in the courthouse (a significant source of clients for those of us who do a lot of criminal defense.) Perhaps, in the long run, the contract work would have helped build my practice, but it didn’t offer the immediate payoff of other activities.
    Although I think I am an excellent legal writer (and have been told this by my employers), the demands of finding and representing my own clients made it difficult to do a top-notch job on the contract projects. And for $20 an hour, I concluded my time was best spent elsewhere.

  • James

    As an attorney who just opened my own solo office (after one year clerking and one year at a boutique litigation firm), I have done a little contract work for the firm where I used to work. Those experiences have led me to question whether contract work is worth doing, especially at the rates Carolyn suggests. (I was making $20 an hour for my contract jobs.)
    What I found was that the contract work pulled me away from the work that would build my practice — sending out direct mail (which I do a lot of), studying up on the law, meeting with current clients, and hanging out in the courthouse (a significant source of clients for those of us who do a lot of criminal defense.) Perhaps, in the long run, the contract work would have helped build my practice, but it didn’t offer the immediate payoff of other activities.
    Although I think I am an excellent legal writer (and have been told this by my employers), the demands of finding and representing my own clients made it difficult to do a top-notch job on the contract projects. And for $20 an hour, I concluded my time was best spent elsewhere.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    James’ comments raise an important point: you need to know how to strike the right balance between contract work and finding your own, higher paying jobs. I do think that $20 an hour is way, way too low a rate for a licensed attorney and way too low for a lawyer to make any money. Unless you are really hard pressed for cash – or you find steady work in bulk that does not cut into your marketing time (maybe an 8 hour document review position one day a week or at night which would give you about $400/month) – the $20 an hour work, standing alone, is not worth it.
    But at the higher rates, in the $35-$50 range, contract work can make a contribution to your expenses. If you spend 20 hours a month (which is 5 hours a week) on contract assignments at the $40 rate, that’s $800/month, which will cover expenses like malpractice insurance, online research and part of your rent. And that’s before a real client, who’ll pay triple that amount, walks through the door.
    You can go three ways with contract work: either use it to get started and eventually wean yourself off lower paid work to your own clients. You can use it as “baseload,” a starting amount to pay bills and supplement with other work. Or third, you can decide to provide contract services exclusively and raise your rates as you gain experience. In my mind, all are viable business models.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    James’ comments raise an important point: you need to know how to strike the right balance between contract work and finding your own, higher paying jobs. I do think that $20 an hour is way, way too low a rate for a licensed attorney and way too low for a lawyer to make any money. Unless you are really hard pressed for cash – or you find steady work in bulk that does not cut into your marketing time (maybe an 8 hour document review position one day a week or at night which would give you about $400/month) – the $20 an hour work, standing alone, is not worth it.
    But at the higher rates, in the $35-$50 range, contract work can make a contribution to your expenses. If you spend 20 hours a month (which is 5 hours a week) on contract assignments at the $40 rate, that’s $800/month, which will cover expenses like malpractice insurance, online research and part of your rent. And that’s before a real client, who’ll pay triple that amount, walks through the door.
    You can go three ways with contract work: either use it to get started and eventually wean yourself off lower paid work to your own clients. You can use it as “baseload,” a starting amount to pay bills and supplement with other work. Or third, you can decide to provide contract services exclusively and raise your rates as you gain experience. In my mind, all are viable business models.

  • http://www.thestoppedclock.blogspot.com/ Aaron

    I guess my services are a bit different – I’ve never been into “helping with overflow”, but instead have at times assisted lawyers with more complex legal tasks on a contract basis. And even in a community a lot less affluent than DC, I would turn business away before I charged $75/hour, let alone $50 or less. I don’t know what type of experience and qualification the contract lawyers have who work at those rates – some may well be great. But I have never been interested in competing on price, focusing instead on quality, and it is an approach that works for me. (And my guess is that I can produce, for example, a better appellate brief in less time, and quite possibly at less cost, even at a substantially higher hourly rate than some of the experienced DC contract lawyers.)

  • http://www.thestoppedclock.blogspot.com/ Aaron

    I guess my services are a bit different – I’ve never been into “helping with overflow”, but instead have at times assisted lawyers with more complex legal tasks on a contract basis. And even in a community a lot less affluent than DC, I would turn business away before I charged $75/hour, let alone $50 or less. I don’t know what type of experience and qualification the contract lawyers have who work at those rates – some may well be great. But I have never been interested in competing on price, focusing instead on quality, and it is an approach that works for me. (And my guess is that I can produce, for example, a better appellate brief in less time, and quite possibly at less cost, even at a substantially higher hourly rate than some of the experienced DC contract lawyers.)

  • http://aspiringsolo.blogspot.com Amy Long

    Carolyn, this post is very helpful and informative. I am an unlicensed J.D. / recent grad who plans to offer freelance law clerk services. Your input about pricing is very helpful in particular. I am willing to negotiate a low rate (say, $15/hour) in exchange for having the opportunity to create a legal writing portfolio. If the attorney was uncomfortable with even that, I would be willing to perform the writing assignment (brief-writing, legal memorandum, etc.) and negotiate the fee upon the attorney’s examination of the final product. Since I am at the beginning stages of freelancing, this may be beneficial for me. My goal is to create a portfolio, and sharpen my skills in the process.
    Amy

  • http://aspiringsolo.blogspot.com Amy Long

    Carolyn, this post is very helpful and informative. I am an unlicensed J.D. / recent grad who plans to offer freelance law clerk services. Your input about pricing is very helpful in particular. I am willing to negotiate a low rate (say, $15/hour) in exchange for having the opportunity to create a legal writing portfolio. If the attorney was uncomfortable with even that, I would be willing to perform the writing assignment (brief-writing, legal memorandum, etc.) and negotiate the fee upon the attorney’s examination of the final product. Since I am at the beginning stages of freelancing, this may be beneficial for me. My goal is to create a portfolio, and sharpen my skills in the process.
    Amy

  • http://www.bmacewen.com/blog/archives/2006/01/blawg_review_39.html Adam Smith, Esq.

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  • http://temp.starklawlibrary.org/blog/archive/2006_01.html#004757 Stark County Law Library Blog

    “MyShingle Q&A: Finding Contract Work”

    Carolyn Elefant posts a question from a reader. Do you have any recommendations on how to pick up contract work

  • http://temp.starklawlibrary.org/blog/archive/2006_01.html#004757 Stark County Law Library Blog

    “MyShingle Q&A: Finding Contract Work”

    Carolyn Elefant posts a question from a reader. Do you have any recommendations on how to pick up contract work

  • Seth Rogers

    Nice post.
    I’ve got a more nuts-and-bolts concern.
    Is LexisNexis a good idea for a contract lawyer?
    The smaller local firms won’t want to pay for wasted time in the library when I could be spending a fraction of the time online (therefore charging less billables).
    The Colorado Bar offers Casemaker for free to all its members, but the research system is incomplete (missing cases, no Shepardizing, etc.). This makes me worried that I might have missed a key case. Cheaper alternative systems like Loislaw present the same concerns.
    You can get a basic research package from Lexis for under $200. But even that fixed expense is quite steep for a beginning practitioner.
    If I’m serious about marketing my research skills, do I need LexisNexis?

  • Seth Rogers

    Nice post.
    I’ve got a more nuts-and-bolts concern.
    Is LexisNexis a good idea for a contract lawyer?
    The smaller local firms won’t want to pay for wasted time in the library when I could be spending a fraction of the time online (therefore charging less billables).
    The Colorado Bar offers Casemaker for free to all its members, but the research system is incomplete (missing cases, no Shepardizing, etc.). This makes me worried that I might have missed a key case. Cheaper alternative systems like Loislaw present the same concerns.
    You can get a basic research package from Lexis for under $200. But even that fixed expense is quite steep for a beginning practitioner.
    If I’m serious about marketing my research skills, do I need LexisNexis?

  • martyn weston

    My name is Martyn Weston looking for contract work in the uk in painting,fence erecting,tiling,gardening and plastering

  • martyn weston

    My name is Martyn Weston looking for contract work in the uk in painting,fence erecting,tiling,gardening and plastering

  • severitt

    I have been a solo attorney for about 5 years, in New Jersey and I have done a lot of contract work for other firms.  With all due respect to Carolyn, my advice to other lawyers starting out:  avoid contract or per diem work like the plague.  Here’s why:

    1.  It takes time away from establishing your own practice, and while the income is appreciated, it essentially locks you into a low income.

    2.  Of the lawyers I did work for, I would say 50% were okay human beings, the other 50% were outright creeps, with examples of the latter being people who would simply not pay you, or lawyers thrilled to treat you like an associate or underling.   I never cold-called people (I took out ads, which were expensive), which seems particularly humiliating.  

    3.  If you’re going to do contract work, why not just get a job?  

    4.  It will never, ever, ever (did I say never?) lead to a full-time job with that attorney or firm, or to any other relationship other than master-slave.  I often thought, ‘gee, this is a nice lawyer or firm, maybe if they have so much work they will eventually take me on as an attorney or partner.’  Won’t happen, trust me.  

    5.  Look at the prices quoted in this article.  Carolyn, I like your blog but $75 an hour at the most?  Really? You don’t see a problem with that?  Don’t people have to eat?  I used to charge $90 and lawyers would pay it but only after bemoaning ‘how much’ I was charging them.  Meanwhile, most of them were passing on my excellent work to the client at the marked-up price of $350 or $400 an hour.  I remember one of the lawyers who I did a lot of work for, and who always made comments about my $90 per hour (and how it was killing him) mentioned how his son was taking piano lessons, and I couldn’t resist asking him how much he paid the piano instructor, and he replied, 100 per hour.  So, maybe I should have learned to pay the piano instead of going to law school.  At least the piano instructor has no overhead and gets respect.

    6.  You will be smarter and a better attorney than most of the lawyers who hire you for contract work (and bemoan what you are charging); yet they will have the clients and you won’t, for reasons you won’t (and I didn’t) understand, which leads to more humiliation/depression/etc.

    Seriously, don’t do it.  Try your hand at building a solo practice and if you can’t make it (and a lot of us don’t) do something else.  Don’t use all that education to make $75 per hour (before you subtract all the expenses) and be someone else’s ‘bitch.’

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