The Road Less Traveled: Working as a Contract Lawyer

By Lisa Solomon

For many, the term “contract lawyer” refers to an attorney who is hired by a staffing agency to peform relatively low-level work (such as document review), related to a major litigation or transaction, for a large firm or corporation. But there is another path for contract lawyers, one that comes with intellectually fulfilling work, excellent working conditions and a comfortable living. I’m referring to becoming an independent contract lawyer.

Independent contract lawyers are a small but growing cadre of solo practitioners who, enabled by technology, work on a project-by-project basis for other lawyers. Contract lawyers perform various tasks, including making court appearances, conducting depositions, and researching and writing briefs.

Getting Started as a Contract Lawyer

Contract lawyering is well-suited to the needs of attorneys in transition because it takes advantage of their existing professional networks. As a contract lawyer, you have a ready pool of potential clients, including your former law school classmates, the colleagues you meet though bar association activities, and even former employers (who may not have enough extra work to justify hiring a permanent full- or part-time employee, but may have a periodic need to have more hands on deck).

Getting started as a contract lawyer entails very little upfront financial investment. The “tools of the trade” couldn’t be simpler, and you probably have them already: a computer (a laptop is helpful if you want to have a “mobile” office, but it’s not required); high-speed Internet service; and a phone.

The only significant upfront investments you may face will be for malpractice coverage and for an online legal research subscription. Because contract lawyers work for other lawyers, rather than directly for clients, you may question the need for malpractice coverage. While you may not be inclined to purchase malpractice insurance if you plan to work as a contract lawyer only until you find a new job as an employee of someone else, if you decide to work as a contract lawyer for the long term, you should be aware that, although most malpractice policies will cover you in your role as “of counsel” to the attorney for whom you are working, experts generally recommend that contract lawyers carry their own malpractice coverage.

Additionally, if you want to focus on offering legal research and writing services, you should have a subscription to an online legal research service. Although Lexis and Westlaw are still the gold standard, there are lower-cost alternatives available, including VersusLaw, Loislaw, FastCase and Casemaker.

Contract Lawyering is a Growing Practice Area

The viability of contract lawyering as a career path received a boost last August, when the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released Formal Op. 08-451, entitled Lawyer’s Obligations When Outsourcing Legal and Nonlegal Support Services. The opinion explains the benefits of using contract lawyers, analogizes contract lawyers to associates (but without the overhead) and clearly states that it is ethical to earn a profit on the work performed by contract lawyers. Because the opinion eases concerns about using contract lawyers that are no doubt on the minds of many potential hiring attorneys, contract lawyers should find that busy solos and small firms are increasingly interested in using their services.

(The ABA’s position on outsourcing in Op. 08-451 is consistent with the favorable position it took in two earlier opinions on the subject, issued in 1988 and 2000, respectively. The vast majority of state and local bar associations have followed the earlier opinions in whole or part, and I expect that they will follow Op. 08-451 as well.)

Want to learn more about working as an independent contract lawyer?

Two excellent resources that to help you break into contract lawyering are The Complete Guide to Contract Lawyering by Deborah Arron and Deborah Guyol and Solo By Choice by Carolyn Elefant (the latter includes a chapter about generating cash flow in a new practice, which addresses contract work as well as court appointments, adjunct faculty positions at law schools and more).

Guest blogger Lisa Solomon is a sole practitioner in Ardsley, N.Y., whose practice is limited to assisting lawyers across the country with all of their legal research and writing needs. Through Legal Research & Writing Pro, Lisa teaches other attorneys how to start and run successful practices as contract lawyers.

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2 responses to “The Road Less Traveled: Working as a Contract Lawyer

  1. I quit my big firm job when my first son was 18 months old because I couldn’t stand the long hours. I spent the next two years working part time as a contract lawyer for several firms, doing court appearances, covering depositions, and helping out on cases that needed an extra lawyer. After that, I was a contract lawyer at a big firm — doing the same work as the other associates, but only billing about 25 hours per week. For me, it was a great way to stay in the law while raising a family.

    • It’s interesting that you went from working as a contract lawyer for (what I presume were) small firms, to working as a contract lawyer at a big firm.

      How did you find the latter position? Were you placed by an agency, or did you contract directly with the firm? How long did your contract work with the firm last?

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