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What are Freelance Paralegals and Contract Paralegals?

published December 15, 2016

By Author - LawCrossing
Published By
( 316 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
Summary: This article discusses the paralegal freelancing career path that may be attractive to those in the profession.

Working as a Contract Paralegal
What are Freelance Paralegals and Contract Paralegals?

Many paralegals, once they gain experience and establish a reputation for reliability and professional work, consider freelancing, which involves working as an independent contractor or with other paralegals as part of a group. Before examining ways in which you can follow this path, it is extremely important to understand what a paralegal can and cannot do. For that reason, a discussion of the ethical responsibilities of paralegals is essential before any other consideration.

It is crucial to remember that paralegals are not attorneys; even as freelancers they cannot practice law. They must work under the supervision of a lawyer. A paralegal’s client is one to whom paralegal services are offered, not legal services.

There are certain areas, therefore, that must be handled very carefully, including depositions, court appearances, pleadings, and the offering of any kind of legal advice. A problem arises when exceptions occur. For example, in some local jurisdictions, paralegals may represent their lawyer-employer in court if the case is uncontested. Such exceptions may set a precedent for other jurisdictions; however, the basic rule remains the same. Paralegals cannot represent clients in court.

Ethical Responsibilities of Paralegals

Paralegals may be present at depositions, but a lawyer must conduct the deposition. Paralegals assist lawyers and, in many cases, are factual experts as a result of their extensive research on any given case; legally, however, they cannot answer questions or give legal advice.

They cannot sign a pleading, which constitutes a written court appearance, or any other document filed in court on the client’s behalf.

Here are some basic points to keep in mind:
  1. Avoid conflict-of-interest situations. If you work for several law firms that specialize in the same area, you may find that you are working for opposing sides of a case. If you are uncertain what to do about this, ask the attorneys for whom you will be working whether they feel that your working for both clients would constitute a conflict. If so, it is your ethical responsibility to act accordingly, particularly if you are working in a litigation case. 
  2. While your duties and responsibilities are diverse, you must remember that paralegals are not lawyers, and that you may not give legal advice to a nonlawyer client, may not represent a client in court, and may not advertise your services as those of a lawyer.
In order to protect yourself from any possibility of infringement of these laws, it is best to take some precautions by following these guidelines:
  1. Never work directly for the public. Always work for an attorney.
  2. Do not meet independently with a client of an attorney.
  3. Make certain that the attorney for whom you are working reviews and signs your work.
  4. Have the attorney for whom you are working give you a letter that authorizes you to perform certain duties for him or her.
  5. Be certain that the attorney for whom you are working has been admit-ted to practice law in your state.
These guidelines are easier to follow when you work under the direct supervision of an attorney; as a freelancer, however, it important to remember these distinctions.

In Appendix C of this book the codes of ethics and professional responsibility of the National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Federation of Paralegal Association are included. They will serve as useful references at all stages of your paralegal career, particularly if you decide to freelance.

In addition to recognizing the legal responsibilities of freelancing, it is important to understand the professional and personal qualifications necessary to succeed and the marketing strategies you must develop as a self- employed paralegal.

Types of Freelance Paralegals

Independent Contractor

There are two types of freelance paralegals. The first is usually referred to as an as an independent contractor, or a paralegal who is not on the payroll of any one organization. This type of paralegal works independently and bills his or her services to an attorney or law firm. Independent con-tractors usually bill on an hourly basis but at times will contract for a specific project or a fixed rate for the entire project.

Frequently, independent contractor paralegals work out of their homes and provide services in many areas of legal practice. They often use a post office box address to maintain their professional image.

Service-Group Paralegal

The second type of freelance paralegal is known as a service-group paralegal, or one who works as part of a service company. Paralegal service companies usually have their own office space, have a staff of clerical help, and may offer specialized services, as in trust and estate law. Essentially, these groups are made up of entrepreneurs who need to be good business managers as well as knowledgeable paralegals. Unsuspecting paralegals may become victims to vendors, without legal qualifications, who try to sell franchises for running a paralegal service company. This point underscores the earlier recommendation that only experienced paralegals consider freelancing as a career option. They will know the questions to ask and will have developed professional contacts in the field to rely on when making such a decision.

In addition to ethical considerations, there are other major issues to con-sider before embarking on your career as a freelance paralegal. You must ask yourself whether you have the right qualifications.


To be qualified to offer paralegal services, you need credentials and experience. Only with training and professional experience will you gain the necessary expertise to convince a client to buy your services. That client will want to know your background, what you have done, and how your former clients feel about your work. For these reasons, freelancing is not a sound career path for the beginning paralegal. After several years, you will have gained the experience to handle complex tasks; routine tasks require less experience. But your overall judgment as a paralegal will improve with experience, and your goal must be to sell your client first-rate paralegal services. If you establish a reputation as a careless, inexperienced paralegal your freelancing career will never get off the ground.

If you gain experience by working under the direct supervision of an attorney before becoming a freelancer, you will not only develop a certain expertise but you will have developed a level of self-confidence necessary to get started on your own.

In addition to the professional qualifications, you will need certain personal qualifications for success as a freelance paralegal. Most of these traits are the same ones necessary for any entrepreneur who wants to succeed in business:
  1. You must be committed to working long, irregular hours.
  2. You must have strong interpersonal communication skills.
  3. You must be able to work under varying deadlines
  4. You must be able to handle pressure.
  5. You must be a self-motivated, self-directed person.
  6. You must have good time management skills.
  7. You must have a strong business sense.
  8. You must have energy, persistence, and drive.
Remember that your first clients are the ones who will help you to establish your reputation. You cannot afford to be anything less than punctual and completely accurate in the work you do. While these traits are important in any job, as an independent paralegal, you will never hold clients or gain new ones if your reputation is not built on these factors.

How much start-up money will you need? Certain investments will have to be made, even in the early stages of freelancing, if you hope to succeed. You should have a personal computer, a separate business phone line, a fax machine, business cards, and business stationery. You should subscribe to WESTLAW or LEXIS/NEXIS. These are basics. Later on, you may wish to develop a brochure or other marketing materials. Speak to other paralegals who are freelancing or have done so in the past. You can do this at professional meetings. Even though other paralegals may be potential competitors, in the early stages of your freelancing, you will not pose a threat to them. And if you have developed your networking resources, these contacts will come in very handy before you embark on your entrepreneurial career. You may be able to save time and money and avoid a lot of headaches.

Many freelancers work part time for someone else until they develop their own clientele. And this raises a very important issue which we will address later: conflict of interests.

A final qualification that will serve you well as a freelancer is development of your selling skills. You are selling a service, as well as yourself. But in order for someone to buy your product, you must know how to present it. A good speaking or presentation skills course and constant practice will prove very helpful to you, particularly before you approach your first clients. One way to gain such experience is to give speeches before any audience, including paralegal and other professional associations, and civic and church groups. If you choose a topic that interests you as well as the group, you have an enthusiasm for your topic. You will also be developing self-confidence, interacting with the public, learning to overcome your weaknesses, and, at the same time, developing an identity within the community. It will require a commitment of your time and energy, but you will gain valuable experience that will help you later on.

In a competitive marketplace, you also gain the edge over other freelancing paralegals if you develop a specialty and gain as much as experience as you can in it. In doing so, you develop a reputation as a qualified, skilled paralegal and build your clientele by good, strong referrals.

How Will You Get Started?

Once you identify your special skills and talents and order your business cards and stationery, you must make a plan for marketing your services. This means doing your homework!

The art of selling your services as a paralegal is to know the needs of your clients and convince them that you can meet those needs. They must also recognize that you can save them time and money; you offer them convenience and value. Some of the following guidelines may help you to get started.

1. List your particular skills and specialties. What specific tasks can you perform and what experience have you had that will demonstrate your abilities in these areas? Remember that any employer is always looking for skills and accomplishments. Although you may be self-employed, every client is a new employer.

2. Identify your prospective clients. Evaluate how they could use your services to save them time and money. For example, could they use someone skilled in a particular area at a particular time of year or for a specific project? You have to convince them that it is in their best interest to contract individually for these jobs, rather than to hire a full-time person or use their own in-house staff that could, perhaps, use their time and talents in other areas, in a more productive way. In other words, you must prove to them that you are cost effective.

3. Focus on your specific personal and professional skills by listing them. This stage is important as a preliminary step for your marketing literature.

4. Plan a brochure. While this step may seem costly and you may not want to initially invest money in a printed brochure, think about what you would like to include. Eventually, a brochure will be an important part of your marketing strategy.

A good brochure need not be complicated; as a matter of fact, it should be clear and direct so that a potential client can easily see what you have to offer. Be brief and specific, and include all essential information, such as your name, address, phone number, and fax number. As you develop a client list, you may want to include that list (with permission of the clients, of course), as well as any comments or quotations from clients, in your brochure.

To keep costs down, make your brochure a one-page brochure that can be folded for mailing purposes and easier reading. Avoid distracting graphics; you project a more professional image if you keep your lettering simple and your copy basic. You can always give additional information and details when you meet a client in person. A brochure should be an invitation to find out more about you and your services. Remember: In many cases this will be your professional introduction, so make certain that it looks absolutely professional in every way, including professional printing.

Take the time to review sample brochures that most printers have available. While you can get started as a freelancer without a brochure, you will market your services with greater ease if you have some printed material to explain what you do. For mailing purposes, a brochure enclosed with a letter makes your selling job much easier.

5. Order business cards and stationery with your letterhead. If you cannot afford the services of a graphic artist, a good printer can help you with a professional logo or design.

6. Successful marketing is ultimately a matter of numbers. For every hundred letters or phone calls you make, you may receive only a few responses. In the beginning, you have to develop a reputation. This requires patience on your part; it also requires that you spend time following through or calling back potential clients.

Where do you find these clients? Every organization, whatever its size, is a potential client base if it has a need for the services of a paralegal. You might feel that small, independent practitioners or companies would be your most likely clientele. That is not necessarily the situation. Many larger firms do have in-house staff, but at certain times, with specific projects, they may have too much work for their regular staff and would welcome the services of a freelance paralegal, particularly one with the specialty they need.

To let potential clients know about your services, you must advertise what you have to offer. This does not mean expensive advertising, particularly in the beginning. You can place ads in legal newspapers under “legal services”; this will attract the attention of a population that you want to reach—the attorneys in your city or town. Other inexpensive means of advertising include listing your services on the bulletin boards of your local bar association, if permissible, and in newsletters, and having your brochures available for distribution at any large gathering of professionals who could use your services.

Whatever the marketing plan you develop, remember that it is essential for you to follow up on everyone who expresses an interest in your services. Keep a record or log, along with the dates of your meetings, letters, or phone calls. If you are to be successful as a freelance paralegal, potential clients must know who you are and what you can do for them. In other words, you must find ways to gain visibility so that attorneys will have you in mind when they need the services of a freelance paralegal.

Other Important Considerations

There are other important issues to consider when planning your career as a freelance paralegal.

Getting Paid

As a freelancer, you must learn how and when to bill your clients. One of the most difficult aspects of working for yourself is collecting money for services you have performed. For that reason, it is essential that you re-member some basic points:

1. Explain your fees to your clients and make certain that you agree upon what your reimbursement will be. Confirm this agreement in writing, so there is no dispute later on or any confusion about the terms you have stipulated.

2. Whether you decide to bill on an hourly basis (and you can check either in your community or with your local paralegal association to find out the going rate) or charge a flat fee for a specific project, be certain to bill your clients promptly. For lengthy projects, it is wise to bill regularly, every week or two. For a shorter project, send your bill within two weeks of completion of your work.

 Unfortunately, no matter how well you plan and set up agreements, there will always be clients with whom you will have problems in collecting your fee, so you must plan for certain losses as a freelancer. You will come to identify and avoid working with such clients.

Remaining Professional and Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

Review the opening paragraphs of this article that discuss the ethical responsibilities of being a freelance paralegal. This issue is so important that you must always review your plans and actions to make certain that you are not overstepping your boundaries as a paralegal. Your practice, your professionalism, and your future as a paralegal are at stake.

Keep abreast of problems that have faced other freelance paralegals, and learn how they have solved them. Become familiar with your local paralegal association, not only to learn about job opportunities which may exist, but also to find out how to enhance your professional status as a paralegal within the community, whether you decide to work independently, as a freelancer, or within an organization as a full-time paralegal.

Finally, here are some helpful hints and suggestions on becoming a successful freelance paralegal:

1. It is essential to keep accurate, up-to-date records of all income and expenses. Formal bookkeeping isn’t required, but you must have a system. Keep your check stubs or make copies of paychecks before depositing them. Collect receipts for all supplies, materials and equipment. Have a separate checking account for your business; it is also good idea to have a separate phone line if you are working from your home.

2. Consider the legal aspects of doing business on your own. If you are asked to sign a contract, read it carefully and make sure you understand every word before signing. If you’re uncertain, get legal advice; it shouldn’t cost much and will be well worth it in preventing problems later on.

3. Understand the tax consequences of freelancing. If your employer is not withholding taxes, you may have to make estimated tax payments quarterly and pay Social Security taxes when you file your annual return. If you don’t, you may be penalized by the Internal Revenue Service. Again, tax advice is relatively inexpensive. A good tax advisor will also be able to tell you of deductions you may take against your business income (even under new tax laws). This is another reason why your record keeping is so important.

While freelancing as a paralegal may appear to be complicated, the rewards can be great. Only you can decide on the route you wish to follow.

As in any decision, the more you understand about the implications and the consequences, the easier it may be for you to choose the best option for you.

In order to make the maximum use of your time and monetary investment, you need to establish efficient systems for your calendar, billing, telephones, filing, references, and resources. The following checklist may be helpful in the beginning.

published December 15, 2016

By Author - LawCrossing
( 316 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.