Going Solo: Pursuing a Career as a Freelance Paralegal

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Going Solo: Pursuing a Career as a Freelance Paralegal

Independent paralegals serve attorneys on a per-project basis, stepping in when firms need an extra pair of hands. "Most firms have a base staff of paralegals, but [freelance paralegals] allow firms to have the flexibility to take on larger cases," says Shawn Olley, owner of Midwest Paralegal Services, Inc., a company which employs more than forty paralegals and provides freelance services to attorneys. "We have long-term customers and take on short-term projects as well," says Ms. Olley.

For independent paralegals, there is no such thing as an average day, and variety is one of the greatest rewards of the job. "My tasks are extremely varied," says Liz Miller, an independent certified paralegal from Florida who specializes in medical malpractice and nursing home cases. "I review and summarize medical records, draft settlement demands, interact with attorneys and clients. I do anything that a [full-time] paralegal would do in the office." Many areas of the law use temporary help, positions which can be filled by experienced freelance paralegals. "For example, case production lends itself to needing freelance help," explains Ms. Olley, whose company specializes in litigation. "From large firms to solo practitioners, freelance paralegals [can offer temporary help.]"

Freelancers must master attorney-paralegal relations. "Interacting with attorneys is important," says Ms. Miller. After all, attorneys comprise the brunt of a freelance paralegal's clientele. While a few states allow non-attorneys to offer some independent document preparation and paralegal services to the general public, most independent paralegals and legal assistants work solely for attorneys. "I won't bite the hand that feeds me," explains Ms. Miller, whose clients are all attorneys. "Even simple documents like bankruptcy petitions are tough to do without giving legal advice, which is [reserved for] attorneys only." In fact, many states require paralegals to work under direct attorney supervision, whether they are full-time or freelance.

In addition to working well with attorneys, freelance paralegals must often be diplomatic when it comes to their client's own staff. "It's a challenge to have the attorney's staff think that I want their jobs," says Ms. Miller. "I go to great lengths to befriend the gatekeeper and assure the staff that I love what I'm doing." On the other hand, freelance paralegals are often appreciated for saving the day. "Because we're often called in when people are in critical need, [the staff is] generally grateful towards our services," Ms. Olley recounts.

Independent paralegals and legal assistants may have the luxury of working from a home office for much of the day, but make no mistake: their job is perhaps even harder than that of full-time legal staff. "The flexibility is great, but I admittedly work harder than others. I [put in] an average 90-hour workweek," says Ms. Miller, who recently decided to pursue a law degree. "I spend about twenty hours a week on administrative tasks and marketing alone." Freelance paralegals not only have cases and clients that demand their attention; they also have a business to run. "I have to be very disciplined and dedicated to what I do, because attorneys depend on me to do my job," Ms. Miller says. Not only do independent paralegals have to constantly work to obtain new clients, they often face hardships when trying to reach their current ones. "It may be tough to pin down attorneys and get time with them to discuss cases," says Ms. Miller.

Those interested in freelance work should learn the ropes in a law firm environment first. "Independent paralegals need experience and training, and that's something you can't get fresh out of school," Ms. Olley explains. "You can't really venture out [on your own] until you have a couple of years of working in a law office under your belt," says Ms. Miller. "You just won't know how cases are run." Experienced paralegals also stress the importance of top-notch writing and computer skills, as well as attendance at continuing education seminars and reading up on developments in their field.

Even experienced freelancers may encounter a few hurdles when they first open their doors. "Expect to work very hard and get a few doors slammed in your face at first," advises Ms. Miller, who began freelancing in an unreceptive market in 1988, when independent paralegals barely existed. "But if you're dedicated, [freelance work] can be a very rewarding and lucrative career," Ms. Miller adds.

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