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Summary: Thousands of lawyers across the country turn to contract lawyering to express work style preferences, enhance job satisfaction, and support transitions within the profession or to other careers.
Lawyers do contract work for different reasons. Some prefer it to other ways of practicing law, others would rather be doing something else, but see contract work as a temporary solution to their cash flow needs, confusion or other transition problems.
These five lawyers typify the lawyers who practice on a contract basis:
1. Katherine Meister has completed over 600 projects in the areas of personal injury, employment, family law and more since she started doing contract work in Portland, Oregon, in 1984. When she began her contract career, she had no law firm experience and was starting a family. First, she headed to the law library to check ads for legal research and writing services. Then she posted her own, making certain it looked better than the others. Word of mouth soon took over. For years she worked around her children's schedules, stopping daily when they returned from school.
Now that her children are grown, she has developed a portfolio career that includes career counseling and trial consulting, though she still loves contract research and writing and has no plans to stop.
2. Eric Saver is a 2013 graduate with an entrepreneurial bent. He first saw contract work as a way to make money between jobs but found he preferred project work to having a job. "It has a definite beginning and a definite end," he says and allows him to do "actual legal work" without the distractions of client issues and firm administration. He formed Per Diem Works, Inc., based in New York City, through which he and four other lawyers do project work for the small firms he feels are not served by most agencies. He also has his own civil rights practice. His steady income from project work allows him the luxury of turning away clients if he is not excited by their claims.
3. Cindy Selfridget, a Seattle lawyer, used contract work to get started in the profession when she found herself still unemployed two years after graduation from law school. She had to beg for her first assignment from a family friend, but that one led to others. Much of her success can be attributed to her not being afraid to ask other lawyers for work, and her willingness to adjust her fee schedule to reflect her lack of experience. As a result of her pricing strategy, the first year she earned far less than her classmates with law firm jobs. Two years later, though, Selfridge was doing better financially than most of her peers, while enjoying her career more.
She now has her own real estate transactions practice, which she supplements with contract work.
4. San Francisco lawyer Bill Stole initially thought he would use contract work as a transition into a new career as a photographer. After the small firm where he had worked for 12 years dissolved in 2007, he picked up a variety of contract projects, from drafting interrogatories to making appellate arguments. Then an agency hired him for a long-term project with a large San Francisco firm where he has worked on a project basis ever since, averaging 35 to 45 hours per week. After years of trying to break into the kind of photography work he aspires to, he has concluded that it will not, after all, be his next career but will continue to be an avocation.
5. Carol Fitzgibbons of Philadelphia chose contract work because, graduating from law school at age 46, "I did not want to be an employee."She likes being an expert at what she does, and she has created a niche for herself as "Champion of Complex Discovery." She travels around the country to do contract discovery work in class actions and other complex litigation. She has been supporting herself this way since 2012 and sees contract work as the wave of the future.
In general, the reasons lawyers choose contract work fall into three categories, which are discussed in more detail in this article:
Work style Preferences
WORK STYLE PREFERENCES
Increased acceptance of the contract work option, as well as other alternative work arrangements, has enabled many lawyers to practice their profession in a way that is more compatible with their personalities, preferences and lifestyle concerns.
Working on a contract basis allows lawyers to be in charge of their own careers rather than prisoners to a law firm or to client expectations. They can decide when and how much they want to work, what projects they want to accept, and with whom they work. The ability to say "no", whether or not they ever exercise it, gives them a feeling of control. Seattle lawyer Cindy Selfridge finds the longer she practices the more selective she is about the work she accepts. A San Francisco contract lawyer says she turned down a three-month assignment because it overlapped with a previously scheduled backpacking trip. Contract lawyers have the freedom to take a day off just because they feel like it - even if it means working late the night before. The sense that they are in charge of their own careers can more than compensate for the fear that they won't make it. "One of the biggest thrills for me is the fact that I have this business and can make it work," says Portland contract lawyer Phil Eastern: "Landing a job or retaining a customer is as thrilling to me as winning on the legal issues."
"I'm not someone who is gung-ho to spend seven days a week on law," says Sue Samuelson of Seattle, who worked as a contract lawyer for several years. "Contract work gives me so many options. It's a lot easier to like what you do when it's two days a week rather than your entire life." Former contract lawyer Robert Thomas agrees. He describes contract lawyers as "people who don't want to lose their souls to the law." Retired San Francisco solo practitioner Richard Kaplan sees them as people who want to "remove the chains from their ankles."
Others have time-consuming hobbies and use their legal talent to support their passion. Skiers disappear in the winter, sailors disappear in the summer. One formerly high-powered lawyer bought a country home and switched to contract work so he could indulge his passion for gardening. Another freelancer took up contract work because "it allowed me the time to go backpacking when I like, to garden when I like, and to train horses for free when I like."
David Madden used long-term contract assignments from New York City firms to fund a series of adventures. Once, he spent 10 months in the Caribbean reading, scuba diving and serving as a camera assistant on a documentary film. More recently, he drove through 21 states on a 21,000-mile odyssey. David also worked as a location manager on independent film projects, was a house-sitter at a film director's home in Beverly Hills, and lingered in Montana working in a bookstore. By mid-2005, he was again employed as a contract lawyer for a well-respected Seattle law firm.
Lawyers who appreciate the variety of contract work thrive on dealing with different personalities and work styles. Many also need the stimulation of learning different areas of the law. "I worked on a newspaper before I went to law school," says Elizabeth Selig. "I really love the variety of issues that come up in my contract work. To me, it's really exciting."
TIME FOR FAMILY
Linda Fried Roys, founder of a contract lawyer agency in Chicago places many young mothers as contract lawyers.
"They're usually in their mid-30s and they are highly regarded and very skilled former associates or partners of midsized-to-large law firms who were essentially driven out because they couldn't work out a meaningful part-time arrangement. 'I was a star,' they tell me, 'and now I'm being viewed as a problem.' Eventually, they realize that they aren't problems; they're still stars. So I work with them to reorganize their practices so they can work their own hours."
She quit a part-time position with a prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm when her third child was born. She accepts occasional assignments through Special Counsel in Baltimore. "I don't have to look over my shoulder when I have three pediatrician appointments in a row," she says. "And I don't have to answer to anyone if I have only three billable hours one day." Laura believes that doing contract work is preferable to being on the mommy track in a large law firm.
"It's very professional. People are grateful for my help. I come in to do battle, or to uncover a brilliant option for counsel. Then leave it on his desk and go home."
New York lawyer Michelle Englander also appreciates the benefits of contract work. She accepted a two-day per week, two-month assignment with a solo practitioner when she had a toddler. As she prepared for the birth of her second child, she stayed closer to home and handled closings of cooperative sales for a real estate management company. "It's very enjoyable to get out of the house and put on my lawyer clothes," she explains.
Most contract lawyers learn to expect flood times as well as dry spells. Although the unpredictable flow of work can cause cash flow worries, those who choose contract lawyering consider the anxiety the price of having time to do other things with life. Lawyers with ambitions in the arts appreciate the flexibility of contract work. Contract assignments can support them while they work on a novel, pursue an acting career or spend time with a jazz trio that may never make its own CD but is much in demand at local clubs.
Fierce competition for clients and the intricacies of modern law firm management have alienated many formerly contented practitioners, especially those who relish the intellectual and creative challenges of the law. Contract work can be a solution for lawyers who enjoy the pure practice of law—for example, the legal analysis, research, writing, and problem-solving, court appearances and depositions—rather than the business of law—dealing with law firm expectations, courting and keeping clients, shepherding a case through the court system for months or years at a time and managing other lawyers and clerical staff.
Chris Bluestein, a small-firm Michigan lawyer who works with contract lawyers, notes that the interpersonal aspects of the law are nearly incompatible with legal analysis and writing. "The up-front work moves at such a fast pace that it's tough to slow down for the kind of methodical analysis that can make or break a case," she says. "The more active one gets in trial work, it seems, the less able one is to write a persuasive brief." Bluestein often asks a contract lawyer to handle the background work, and indeed, this is what many contract lawyers most enjoy.
Here are some more examples of contract lawyers and what they do:
Sue Samuelson loves to ghostwrite briefs, figure things out, bounce ideas around with the partner who spends all his time talking on the phone or running to meetings.
Phil Griffin found that concentrating on research and writing "brought the practice of law back to life for me."
Cindy Selfridge, adept at preparation and negotiation, works in tandem with a skilled trial lawyer.
Other contract lawyers prefer the "up front" work. One booming area of contract practice in California is "appearance" work; lawyers advertise their services to handle routine court appearances for a flat fee.
LIMITED CLIENT CONTACT
Many lawyers feel, deep in their hearts, that "client contact" is much overrated as a source of professional satisfaction. Some clients just never seem to sleep, and their problems can keep you from sleeping too. Sue Samuelson says:
"One of the reasons I withdrew from my partnership to work on a contract basis is that I was really tired of whiny clients. Whenever a former client would phone with a new problem, I'd automatically think to myself,' Oh God, now what's the matter?' I should have been happy clients were calling me. That's the name of the game. But I prefer it when I don't have to deal with them."
For Elizabeth Bottman, not having to deal with clients "keeps the stress level down." And Eric Sarver cites client relations as one aspect of law practice that "doesn't really excite me."
AVOIDING OFFICE POLITICS
Elizabeth Bottman notes that "law firms tend to chew up associates and spit them out. There's also the conformity that's required, like driving the right car. I don't want to be a part of that.'' Sue Samuelson sends the same message in different words. "I end up liking everybody in the office because I don't know what their faults are. It's one of the advantages of contract work: not having to deal with the everyday politics." Many contract lawyers would agree with the anonymous complaint that being a law firm employee is agreeing to your own exploitation.
More lawyers than ever are "in transition." New graduates can't find jobs; veterans lose their positions in layoffs, mergers, and closures. Dissatisfied lawyers want to escape the pressures of their law jobs for more rewarding work outside the law or as solo practitioners. Contract work can help smooth all kinds of transitions.
A BRIDGE INTO THE PROFESSION
New admittees unable to find jobs in a saturated market turn to contract work to gain experience and exposure to potential employers. In fact, contract work is fast becoming - like summer clerkships during law school, and judicial clerkships after graduation - an accepted way to find a first-year associate position. Wiebke Breuer, fresh out of law school, approached small firms in her area, expressing her willingness to work hard and her eagerness to learn. One firm hired her on a contract basis. When it had enough business to support another full-time associate, she was offered the position.
TO REENTER THE PROFESSION
Lawyers also use contract work as a means to re-enter the profession after interrupting their careers for child-rearing or trying out another line of work. Contract work can help them decide whether they really want to come back while providing the opportunity to showcase their skills in the legal marketplace. Janine Iverson left her public defense career to try a career in sales. Four years later, she decided she missed the intellectual challenge of law and found a contract position. She was later promoted to "of counsel" status with the firm.
TO SUSTAIN A NEW SOLO PRACTICE
Lawyers starting solo practices can augment their incomes with contract work while developing a full clientele. John Costa got into contract work when he left a large firm with a business client that couldn't sustain his practice. John tried to market himself to other law firms as "of counsel" but found no takers. What he did find, though, was interest in having him come in as a contract lawyer. Sharing office space with a mid-sized commercial firm allowed him to serve his existing client, develop more business, and cover his overhead and expenses with the commercial litigation projects he handled on an hourly basis for the law firm.
Many contract lawyers use contract work to broaden their experience and improve their chance of finding their next job in the legal profession. One agency estimates that 25 percent of its temporary placements turn permanent every year. Robert Wilson is a good example. After starting with glorified paralegal work at a New York City firm, he got a chance to write the responses to a series of complex summary judgment motions. Several months later, Wilson's job search paid off with an offer from a firm in Philadelphia. Realizing it did not want to lose him, the New York City firm made him a permanent job offer he could not refuse.
TO MAINTAIN SKILL LEVEL AND ENTHUSIASM WHILE UNEMPLOYED
Robert Wilson's contract assignment gave him more than the opportunity to find a permanent job: it also enabled him to get out of the house and keep his mind active.
"I noticed in the first couple of days back at work that I had to rediscover my thinking and analytical processes and I was grateful that because of the temporary assignment my skills didn't get rusty. After a couple of months without a job, I also got bored. Unemployment wasn't fun anymore. The contract position got my mind off my nervousness."
TO GENERATE INCOME BETWEEN JOBS
The lawyers in this category typically lost their jobs through layoffs, mergers or closures.
Chris Maiocchi had 20 years of in-house real estate experience before her job as vice-president of real estate at Paine Webber disappeared. She worked on a temporary half-time assignment at IBM while hunting for a full-time job. "Continuing on a temporary basis can be enticing," she says, "if there is some way to work out a good health care package." At the time, though, she was grateful to have the work in a depressed real estate market.
Zoe Jackson was laid off, along with most of the other lawyers in the corporate department of her Los Angeles firm. Rather than looking for another job, she tried contract work. She found one long-term assignment through an agency, and then connected with a friend in San Francisco who asked her to handle court appearances 400 miles away in Los Angeles. At that point, she decided to establish her own practice rather than return to the insecurity of someone else's practice. "Contract work pays money quickly, and real clients don't," she observes.
TO SUPPORT A TRANSITION OUT OF THE LEGAL PROFESSION
Contract work can also help with transitions out of the law and into other careers. A flexible work schedule gives lawyers in transition time to study, write, or start a business. Flora Green, a 2012 graduate, works as a contract lawyer one day a week. She does fund-raising for a nonprofit four days a week, and hopes eventually to "phase out of law practice altogether." For Dorothy Story, contract work started as a source of income while attending seminary so she could begin a new career as a minister. But a long-term contract assignment on a death penalty appeal helped her see that she could apply her religious convictions to her law practice. In part because of the work she has done as a contract lawyer, she decided to remain in law but to change direction and practice in a way that's more in line with her spiritual interests.
TO CONFIRM A CHOICE TO LEAVE THE PROFESSION
Many lawyers test their suitability to the practice of law by hopping from job to job—a year here, a year there. They try large firms and small, government practice, and in-house corporate roles, until their resumes reflect their skill at finding jobs—but also their lack of loyalty and commitment.
Contract work is a far less painful and damaging way to learn the same lesson. By accepting assignments in different environments and handling a variety of projects for wide-ranging personality types, lawyers can experiment without going through the trauma of a series of job changes. Lawyers who want to leave the profession, but accept contract assignments to tide them over until they find another job, can also use contract work to test their decisions.
Both Michael Kraft and Rob Schoen were supporting wives and children when they decided to leave their secure positions - Krantz as in-house counsel with an insurance company, Schoen as an associate with an insurance defense firm. Both solicited contract assignments while they searched for their next jobs. Escaping the long hours, contentious opponents and pressures of litigation did not restore their sense of satisfaction. Rather, their freelance experiences confirmed the wisdom of their original decisions to abandon the practice of law altogether.
The message of this article is essentially this: versatility. Contract work is as valuable an option for lawyers trying to stay afloat financially as it is for those seeking flexibility and control over the shape of their legal careers. It is not a good choice for every lawyer, though. There are risks involved and you should decide for yourself whether contract work is right for you.
Looking for an in-house contract attorney job near you? Go here.
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