The ups and downs of independence


If meeting in the hall at the courthouse to turn in finished work, sharing a small cubicle with the bookkeeper, or managing an uneven cash flow sound like ideal work enhancements, then making a temporary or permanent living as a contract attorney may be a career alternative worth exploring.

Independent contractors often move from project to project before boredom sets in, may be included in legal matters or meetings not otherwise accessible to associates or newer members of the firm, and work with fascinating clients and cases.

The contract practice of law has become a hot topic, both for individual lawyers and for law firms. In the present legal market, there is a growing demand for contract attorneys, who work and are paid on an hourly or project basis by other lawyers. Law firms are revamping their attitudes and policies about less-than-full-time attorneys.

No longer are these lawyers thought to be "less worthy." In fact, good contract attorneys often are envied for their ability to organize and handle complicated legal matters in a shorter time frame, thereby creating the benefit of financial economy for the firm as well as more free time for the lawyer.

Major resistance

And although some entrenched law firms are trying to resist the growth of alternative work schedules, contending that proper lawyering cannot be achieved with a less than full-time commitment, these firms will stand to lose excellent attorneys if they do not eventually accede to the realities of the marketplace. This bodes well for those who desire quality time outside as well as inside of the law office.

Many people exploring the possibility of working as contract attorneys desire to continue to use their legal skills, but in a less intensive, all-consuming style. These lawyers want more freedom to pursue other interests or commitments. Some need time for family or health-related issues.

Others want time to cultivate another vocation, build a business, do volunteer work, write a book, get involved in politics, or go to school.

Some become contract lawyers because they were laid off, or fired, or quit their jobs and need supplemental income until they find another job or decide what their next career move will be.

Numerous small firm and solo practitioners who are building their own law practices supplement the income they receive from private clients by performing hourly work for other lawyers who are either overloaded or short on expertise in a given field.

The reasons are many and diverse, and each has as much validity as the other.

Numerous issues should be considered before deciding to work as a contract attorney. An effective contract attorney must be an individual who is both at ease walking into a new office with new people and new issues and comfortable being dropped into the middle of an existing case. Conscientious contract lawyers will even admit to occasional discomfort when thrown into a case with unfamiliar law, but remedy that situation by spending time in the law library, without charge, until they feel comfortable with the new issues.

Contract attorneys are called upon to handle all kinds of novel legal and factual situations on a moment's notice. That's both the thrill and the terror for the growing number of lawyers who make their living doing contract work. It also is the reason that lawyers who seem to cultivate the most contract work usually have at least two to three years of experience under their belt. Additionally, the majority of contract work is in the litigation arena, often in research and writing, appearances and discovery.

Benefits & drawbacks

There are a number of other benefits and drawbacks to contract lawyering.




Although the above discussion of benefits and detriments isn't necessarily exhaustive of the topic, it hopefully will stimulate your thinking about whether working as a contract lawyer will meet your needs, comport with your work style and financial expectations, and alleviate some of the problems that may be occurring in your current employment.

In a future issue, I will continue to examine contract work by delineating some additional issues you should continue before jumping into "contract lawyer mode."