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Avoiding S**tlaw Jobs

by Carolyn Elefant on May 31, 2011 · 6 comments

in Mistakes/What NOT To Do, Outsourcing & Hiring

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In Part I of this post, I highlighted the kind of unsavory freelance assignment that even struggling solo and small firm lawyers should pass right by. In this second part, I’ll describe some of the red flags that should tip you off to a scam-job.

Is the assignment posted on Craigslist or an online freelance site? I’d estimate that roughly ninety percent of the lawyer positions advertised are either scams, low-end pay or positions that involve spec work or commission pay. Steering clear of Craigslist may be the best way to avoid sh**tlaw jobs overall. Odesk and elance aren’t much better. Though these sites tend to attract slightly more legitimate companies and firms, the pay (for example, $250 to incorporate a non-profit in New York) is often way below market.
Still, Craigslist (and other online sites) do offer some real opportunities (and indeed, I’ve used it to find some excellent people). So how to distinguish the real from the rotten? First, is the job description sufficiently detailed? For example, if the position says that you’ll be making appearances, does it specify in what types of proceedings (status calls? settlement conferences? motions?) Does the ad include detail about the volume you’ll be handling or number of hours you’ll be expected to work? Second, how discerning is the lawyer posting the ad? Does he or she ask for specific experience or require writing samples, a transcript (personally, I don’t care about grades) and/or references? When an employer seeks this type of information it demonstrates an interest in hiring someone with real skills – and not just a fungible body to churn out grunt work. Finally is the pay at least $25-$30 an hour for a licensed JD, and at least between $15 and $20 for a law student or grad who hasn’t passed the bar? (NOTE – this is for metropolitan areas; rates might be lower outside of large cities). Granted, these rates are paltry, but if you work 40 hours a month, it’s enough to pay off your loans or cover health insurance.

Is the position legal? I’m not talking about a lawyer seeking to hire an escort, but rather, job situations that violate labor laws or ethics rules. For example, I’ve seen Craigslist ads seeking lawyers to work as unpaid interns in exchange for the “experience” of answering phones, setting up websites and handling a host of administrative tasks. Unfortunately, this type of free labor comes at the cost of violating the law. Other jobs I’ve seen advertised promise a lawyer commission for each client generated and billed. Though unpalatable in my taste, this kind of arrangement could be ethical so long as the fee-share with an outside lawyer is disclosed to and approved by the client. Then, there are also those non-lawyer companies that hire lawyers to handle the legal aspects of cases like foreclosure defense. There, the non-lawyer company may split the fee with the lawyer which is a huge no-no that’s not permissible even with disclosure. Ultimately, as a lawyer, you’re obligated to abide by ethics rules, and you could face a grievance if you agree to these questionable arrangements.

Do due diligence? As a new lawyer, you probably expected potential employers to run a due diligence check on you – not the other way around. If you reach the point where you’ve spoken with the hiring lawyer by phone or met in person, take the time to check his or her reputation. Does the lawyer have a website? Is he or she suspended from the practice of law? Has the lawyer friended or followed other respectable attorneys? Though none of these tests are fool proof, they provide some added assurance.

Trust your gut Sometimes a hiring lawyer may creep you out – whether it’s the tone of their voice or how they’re dressed or the way they look at you. If that’s the case, forget it.

Do you have any other tips for avoiding s**tlaw employers or any horror stories to share. The comment section is open!

  • Melody Kramer, FreelanceLaw

    You are right, there are plenty of sh**law jobs posted on Craigslist and other places.  It is because of those reasons that FreelanceLaw.com, an online directory of freelance legal professionals that is only accessible to verified law firms, is one step towards protecting yourself as a freelancer from crappy projects.  In addition, you must use common sense and sound business principles.  Know how and what you are going to be paid upfront.  Ask for a retainer before you start work, or require payment on delivery of the work product.  Use written contracts.  Do due diligence about who you are working for, check your local court records to see if they have been sued for breach of contract before, talk to other freelancers.  Remember that as a freelancer, you are your own business owner.  You decide what to charge, you decide where and how you work, and you decide whether or not to take on a project.  If a potential client tries to interfere or not cooperate on any of those points, consider that a big red flag.

  • http://twitter.com/BruceGodfrey Bruce Godfrey

    There are some debt settlement companies that pay lawyers to perform certain tasks in the course of providing a negotiation posture or forestalling to get settlements.  This is not fee-splitting in my view, but more along the lines of an insurance company paying for a legal defense in the overall course of preventing a liability event.  But if they are splitting a fee paid as a fee for legal defense, yeah that’s an ethical train wreck.

  • Chris

    Craigslist is certainly a tough place to find freelance/contract work that seems reputable, but the question is: where are the reputable places to look for freelance/contract work?

  • Melody Kramer, FreelanceLaw

    Chris, there certainly is a great need for development of further resources for just that purpose.  I build FreelanceLaw.com for legal freelancers, but it takes time to develop.  I have recently been in search for a paralegal for my legal office and sadly, there were not any appropriate candidates with profiles on FreelanceLaw.  However, I posted an ad on craigslist and immediately got a ton of resumes sent to me.  However, it is a painfully slow process to wade through applicants that way.  I would be weeks ahead of the process if they had only posted profiles on FreelanceLaw where verified law firms are looking for people.

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