Despite the pitfalls, independence means contract lawyering as
an alternative to full-time practice of law will continue to grow
by Hindi Greenberg
In the January issue of California Bar Journal, I wrote about the career option of working as a contract lawyer and set forth some of the benefits and detriments to consider before cultivating that style of practice.
For those individuals who are still contemplating doing contract work, here are some additional points to consider.
Lawyers who want to be responsible for a case or have ultimate authority, or who have their ego invested in the status they achieve, probably should not work on a contract basis. Often the work is supplemental, often it is piecemeal, occasionally it could be done by an experienced paralegal.
Sometimes the contract lawyer works under less than desirable circumstances. For example, some years ago, I spent eight hours pulling books off the law library shelves and copying cases. (However, I was paid $50 per hour and mentally planned my next vacation.) Another time I spent three days reviewing complex files while sitting in one of the two chairs in the reception area of a tiny law office because the solo practitioner did not want the files to leave the office.
If a smaller city is not yet receptive to contract work, lawyers intending to cultivate contract work in those locales need to determine how much pioneer energy they are willing to put out to overcome the traditional objection that contract attorneys must not be good attorneys or they "would have a full-time job."
Conflicts of interest
Contract lawyers need to be aware of conflicts of interest when switching from case to case and firm to firm. They must always ask who the parties, attorneys and important witnesses are and inquire about the issues in each case on which they are asked to work.
There are a number of contract attorney placement agencies in larger California cities, both north and south, and also across the country. Some of them are locally owned and others are divisions of large employment agencies such as Kelly Services. Some act only as brokers, matching you to firms for whom you do work as an independent contractor, maintaining your own health and malpractice insurance, and covering your own social security taxes. These agencies make their money by charging the law firm a broker's premium, on top of the hourly fee you have stated you want to earn, for each hour you work. You are not an employee of either the placement agency or the law firm.
On the other hand, the larger agencies generally carry contract attorneys on their employment rolls, paying insurance and taxes -- these agencies pay you a set fee for each hour you work, then negotiate a fee for your work with the law firm.
Your decision about which kind of agency best suits your needs depends upon whether you want to maintain your independent contractor status or become an employee.
From either type of agency, you might obtain work on a short term, discrete research and writing project, be requested to make an appearance or handle a deposition, or be assigned to an ongoing project or case that lasts for several months. To locate contract attorney placement agencies, look in the classified section of the local legal newspaper or call your local bar association to see whether it has a list.
Although it may be fruitful to submit a resume to each of the local temporary agencies, the majority of attorneys obtain their contract work through personal referrals and solicitations, not through the agencies. They should call everyone they know -- opposition counsel, other colleagues, classmates -- and attend bar functions to cultivate as many leads as possible. Much of the contract work comes from solo and small practices, since the bigger firms often contact their alumni about overflow projects. However, those larger firms also are more often willing to pay a temporary agency to obtain help, so if you'd like to be placed with a larger firm or in a niche practice area, be sure to register with the agencies.
If the firm doesn't require work to be done in its office, contract attorneys often do their research at the law library and their document preparation on their own computers. Many provide a finished product, although some firms want to have the information available on disk or have their own secretaries prepare the document.
If you are considering a job as a full-time employee, working on a contract basis in a law firm is often a good way to preview a firm (and for the firm's lawyers to preview you). And even if you initially do some work for a firm without thinking about a permanent relationship, some "romances" do develop, resulting in permanent employment.
Many contract lawyers do repeat work for the same several practitioners. Therefore, one method of marketing is to periodically call lawyers for whom previous work has been done to inform them that the contract lawyer is available.
Many contract lawyers do not carry malpractice insurance. This is a personal decision. But sometimes the supervising attorney's insurance policy will cover a contract attorney, especially if the contract attorney does not sign documents, but merely prepares them for signature by one of the firm's insured attorneys.
Some contract attorneys request indemnity agreements from firms with whom they do repeat work. Most wing it and try to avoid potential problems by not allowing their names on legal documents of any kind.
Although there may seem to be a number of negatives to contract lawyering, detriments are balanced by the often humorous or interesting incidents encountered in journeys among many law offices and lawyers.
As in the full-time practice of law, the work done by a contract lawyer can be interesting, boring, intellectually stimulating, dull, diverse, repetitive or a combination of all things good and bad.
The difference is that the contract attorney can decide with whom to work, which assignment to accept, and when to do it, a luxury not usually allowed to a law firm employee.
Because of these benefits, and because the staffing needs of law firms will continue to fluctuate, contract lawyering as an alternative to the full-time practice of law will continue to grow.
Hindi Greenberg was a business litigator for 10 years before founding Lawyers in Transition in 1985. She can be reached at 415/285-5143.