My Shingle

The Contract Lawyer Conundrum

by Carolyn Elefant on January 15, 2009 · 6 comments

in Business Models, Should I Solo?

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[Some edits as of 1/16/09]

Over at her blog, Legal Research and Writing Pro, my friend Lisa Solomon summarizes the recent spurt of posts round the blogosphere on the grim life of contract attorneys, who endure low wages, intolerable working conditions and frequently, degrading treatment from other lawyers.  Lisa suggests that these lawyers consider starting their own independent contract lawyering businesses, where they can engage in more substantive work than document review and earn more money by eliminating the middle man – the staffing agency – from their dealings with the hiring firm.  Likewise, I’ve always contended that contract lawyers should think about starting their own law firms instead of settling for low paid and often mindless document review work.

But increasingly, I’m realizing that my advice creates a conundrum for many contract lawyers:  with student loan obligations bearing down, many feel that they can’t afford to wean themselves from contract lawyer work.  Thus, even when a position ends and the contract lawyer uses the downtime to try to start a firm, when another contract gig opens up, it’s often hard for the lawyer to resist the steady cash, and so the firm gets put on hold until the next dry spell.

In addition, I’m also aware that contract lawyering has changed substantially since I started my own firm 15 years ago.  Back then, there weren’t as many contract positions available as there are today, but those contract positions that were available were far more flexible.  As a result, lawyers could handle the contract work but take time off to attend to matters for their own practice. However, many of today’s contract attorneys don’t have that option.  In a buyer’s market, staffing agencies are cracking down and requiring contract lawyers to work long days, every day with few breaks.  Many contract lawyers spend 10 hours on the job and are too exhausted afterwards to do work for outside clients, even if they were able to find it.  In fact, many agencies expressly prohibit solo practitioners from applying for contract lawyering jobs, because of concerns that solos may devote time to their own practices on the contract client’s dime.

Whereas once, lawyers could use contract positions to get a firm off the ground, increasingly,  contract lawyering is becoming incompatible with starting a practice.  Lawyers are forced to choose between contract lawyering and hanging a shingle – and those who are strangled by debt often opt for the guaranteed income that comes from contract work.

So what is the solution to the conundrum or catch-22 of the contract lawyer?

I’ve been grappling with this question for some time now.  Certainly, opening a virtual office is one solution, since the contract lawyer could handle client work during the evenings or on the weekend.  Though that wouldn’t leave much time for marketing, during the periods that the contract lawyer is generating revenue, he or she could hire an even lower-paid law clerk to assist with blog posts or setting up online social media profiles.  This kind of schedule would be extremely demanding but within a year, the contract attorney might be able to build up enough of a financial reserve and a client base to fore go contract work entirely, or at least almost entirely.  As an alternative to a virtual practice, a contract lawyer could meet individual clients exclusively on the weekends – though he’d have to limit matters to those that did not require court or personal appearances.

Contract lawyers might also try to build up the type of independent legal research and writing practice as Lisa Solomon teaches at Legal Research and Writing Pro.  Most legal research and writing assignments can be performed remotely, thus obviating the need for a contract lawyer to take time off a project.  At the same time, many of the better paying research and writing projects require meaty legal analysis and may have a short turn around time – and a contract lawyer would need to ensure that the constraints of his day job did not compromise his ability to deliver high quality and timely work for his freelance clients.

Another possibility would involve a collaborative approach.  Perhaps a group of contract lawyers could team up or create some kind of affiliate model that doesn’t give rise to some of the problems attendant to formal partnerships that Susan Cartier Liebel recently highlighted at Build A Solo Practice.  For example, let’s say that three lawyers decided to team up – perhaps in a (carefully structured) partnership or a loose affiliation.  The lawyers would agree to rotate contract lawyering and business building.  So in the first month, Lawyer A would take a contract work and split the proceeds from the contract gig with the other lawyers.  The financial breathing room provided by this revenue would allow Lawyer B and Lawyer C to forego contract work and focus on building up a practice.  Proceeds from work generated by Lawyer B and C would go to a common firm fund and be used to cover law related expenses and marketing.  When Lawyer A’s gig ended, he could join in the business building, and also work on matters from Lawyer B and C.  Lawyer B would take the next contract gig, and service clients as best as possible, but would have coverage from A and C for thosehe couldn’t handle while on the job.

I’m sure that there are multiple ways to skin the contract lawyer conundrum.  Have any of you successfully moved away from document-review type contract work to opening a practice- and how did you make the transition?  Alternatively, what creative ideas do you have for financially strapped contract lawyers who want to make a go of solo practice?

  • http://pittsburghlegalbacktalk.com/ Cliff Tuttle

    Contract lawyering was a great idea that was turned into a grim reality. Today there are a cadre of professional contract lawyers who are not given the time flexibility necessary to keep even a modest practice going. Strangely, legal knowledge and experience are considered a negative in this world, except experience using document review software packages, the gist of which can be learned in about 15 minutes. This experience can be a wrong turn for a new lawyer who hasn’t had an opportunity to learn basic lawyering skills. But for a mid-career lawyer who doesn’t stay too long, it can be a useful introduction to the brave new world of electronic discovery.
    CLT

  • http://www.lawyerbird.com Contract Attorney Kimberly Alderman

    I just don’t get it. I don’t get this mentality that “they” are deciding what a contract lawyer is or what the working conditions are. The only “grim realities” in life are the ones that people allow themselves to become subject to. To the extent that people feel oppressed by their debt, that debt is the known consequences of their choices (in the case of student loans, the choice to go to a better school than one that would have been more affordable.)
    I get emails all the time from attorneys who are interested in entering into contract work, but once I start to tell them *how* to do it (marketing, paying for Lexis or Westlaw, setting up an actual firm), many quickly fall off, dissuaded that the amount of effort it takes to run a contract lawyering firm is comparable to that required to run *any* solo firm.
    For those that want contract lawyering to be something “easier”, requiring less investment than setting up a solo firm, then staffing work and doc review really is the only option. There is only one way to be richly rewarded in this life, and that is to take charge of it, find ways to overcome obstacles, and seize your empire. But this applies to lawyers, bakers, and jugglers alike, and for those that choose to focus on the negative, that’s exactly what life will give you right back.
    My own comments on the same article that Lisa comments on are can be found at http://contractattorneys.wordpress.com/2009/01/13/back-in-action-and-sorting-through-the-rubble/

  • http://www.naflp.org Melody Kramer

    “Contract lawyering” and “freelance lawyering” are not the same thing. The fundamental difference is the identity of your employer. Working for yourself is far superior in the long run than working for someone else because you are the only one that will keep your best interests at heart.
    Law firms and staffing agencies keep young lawyers so overworked and overtired that the lawyer never gets the time to sit up and take notice of the fact that nobody is looking out for their longterm best interest. They just want to wring as many billable hours out of them as possible, and then discard them by the wayside.
    By freelancing, however, you become your own boss and determine your own working conditions. I have done this for years and would never turn back. I currently have a hybrid practice of solo practice (collaborating with other solos so we can work on more complex litigation) and periodically doing freelance work for other attorneys.

  • http://www.attorneyisaacs.com Marshall R. Isaacs

    Excuse me for being a sycophant, Carolyn, but I love this post. Many of my colleagues have gone the contract lawyering route. It is especially popular here in New York City with the abundance of mega-firms.
    My suggestion to new lawyers: DON’T DO IT. Contract work is crack cocaine for attorneys.
    Picture if you will: Barely admitted, the budding lawyer suddenly finds herself making $50 per hour (maybe it’s more these days?). Plus free lunch and dinner and a limo ride home!
    Young lawyer sours on poring over boxes of meaningless documents and takes a job at a two-attorney personal injury firm. Now lawyer gets yelled at daily for unwittingly botching real cases and can no longer afford her chic Manhattan one-bedroom or any apartment in the outer boroughs, for that matter. Lawyer returns to contracting. Lawyer sighs in relief: Life is back to normal and she never has to worry about getting yelled at, so long as she keeps going through those boxes.
    No less than 20 of my colleagues have repeated this experience. Only one managed to finagle a full-time position. The cold-turkey effect was so powerful, many of these quit law altogether.
    Law practice is wonderfully rich, rewarding, challenging and enlightening. Unfortunately, those rewards do not come overnight.
    If offered a position, pretend someone was handing you a pipe full of white powder. Just say no.

  • Lisa

    Contract work sucks. Agencies and law firms treat contract attorneys like dirt. Not to mention, agencies and law firms falsify their records to pretend that they pay contract attorneys $120-190 per hour while contract attorneys only make $28-35 per hour.

  • http://www.ameritrustlawgroup.com/ AmeriTrust Law Group

    With the saturation of the new attorney job market, and the incredible cost of going through law school these days, many first year attorneys would probably jump at the chance to have steady employment which offers $28-35 per hour.

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