There are few areas of the paralegal field more exciting and challenging than working as a freelance paralegal. As a freelance paralegal, you'll be able to be your own boss and chart your own course. An increasing number of paralegals are striking out on their own as freelancers, independent contractors, and entrepreneurs. What is a freelance paralegal? Who are the freelancers? What are their qualifications? How can you become one?
What qualifications are needed to be a freelance paralegal? The first thing needed is some expertise. How much expertise is enough? That's really impossible to say, but you'll need enough experience to know what you're doing unaided, and enough to convince prospective clients to trust you. Four to five years experience is suggested before going freelance. A minimum of two years is required to begin handling basic work. In addition to years of experience, you should have a basic knowledge of the tasks most paralegals do in your area.
Where you have gained your experience can be equally important. If you've worked for highly respected, expert lawyers in a specialty area, this can lend added professionalism. Having a letter of reference from your previous employers attesting to your competence can be a big help too.
Finally, experience is needed to know your way around the legal community, to learn how to work with lawyers, about the way different firms are run and to become acquainted with many people in the field. The more the experience, the better it is.
Your personality and drive are equally important qualifications needed to be a freelance paralegal. You'll need the desire to succeed buttressed by a sense of confidence that inspires trust in you. You'll need commitment to long hours and a sense of responsibility and care so that your clients always receive your best efforts. Calmness and ability to deal with pressure and difficult-to-get-along-with personalities will also help you over the rough spots which are part of such work. Finally, you'll need business savvy, organizational ability, punctuality and management to pull it all together.
You don't have to have a lot of capital to get started as a freelance paralegal. All you really need are stationery, business cards, a simple brochure, a mailing address and telephone answering machine or service. Of course you'll have to be able to support yourself while you're getting started, building up a reputation and a clientele- which may take from a few months to a year. Many successful freelancers work for a law firm part time while establishing their own business.
Finally, you'll need some skill in selling.
You're interested in testing the water as a freelance paralegal, what's the best field for you to set up shop in? The obvious answer is the field in which you have expertise. Wherever paralegals work, there's a demand and an opportunity for freelance work.
If you have worked in more than one field, or as a generalist, then you'll have an unusual opportunity to either choose a specialty or to increase the work you handle by working in more than one field. You may be thinking about preparing for "going freelance" a year in advance and are willing to switch fields of work to gain more expertise. If so, you'll have some choice in the field in which you'll work. There's no one answer as to which field is best for you. Highly technical fields such as the sophisticated areas of trusts and estates or real estate work will allow you to bill at very high rates. Relatively speaking, there's less work in the narrower specialties than in litigation, for example. But then, there's also less competition, and depending upon where you live and work, you may have more work than you can handle. Specialty areas are affected by changes in the economy. Complex litigation and real estate are generally not as big as they were just a year or two ago. However, there are many paralegals with thriving freelance careers in these areas; so don't discount the opportunities. If you handle contingency-based litigation, make sure you are paid regularly- by the week or month- and not only if the attorneys win their cases.
There are two ways to get started, plunge right in or ease in slowly. We recommend you ease in slowly, but if you're brave, confident and financially secure, why wait? The best way to ease in is to win the approval and encouragement of your current employer. If he'll agree, then arrange to work for him/her part-time on an hourly basis or by the project. If your employer will give you the work you need to begin, you can then spend some time marketing, and begin to develop a clientele. Also ask your employer to recommend you to other attorneys.
Conflict of interest can become an issue if you work for many law firms that specialize in the same area, or if you work in a small community. You might find yourself hired by a firm that's on the opposing side of a case from a former client. In matters like this, you'll have to exercise judgment. Talk to the lawyer who wants to use your services, and ask if it would constitute a conflict of interest. Be especially careful if you've taken the personnel service route, and are hiring out other paralegals. Make certain that none of them are involved in conflict of interest projects.
Of course, some cases are clear cut. If you've worked for one side in a litigation, you obviously cannot work for the adversary. It doesn't matter how tempting the offer is; it's your ethical duty to turn down the request.
Unauthorized Practice Of Law
Although the role of a freelance paralegal is challenging and diverse, one caveat must be borne in mind: a paralegal is not a lawyer. In some states, it is a criminal offense to practice law without a license. While it is doubtful you'll ever be thrown in jail, there are a few things you should remember:
- You may not offer legal advice to a non-lawyer client
- You may not represent a client in court
- You may not advertise yourself as a lawyer
Few paralegals deliberately set out to break the law. But to be on the safe side, take a few precautions:
- Always work for a lawyer, never directly for the general public.
- Avoid meeting independently with a lawyer's client.
- Have a letter of agreement from the attorney, stating that he or she is authorizing you to work for him.
- Make certain that any lawyer you work for has been admitted to practice in your state.
- Be sure that the attorney for whom you work reviews and signs your work product.
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