How to Work As a Contract Attorney
If you are an attorney, you may want to consider working as a contract attorney. A contract attorney does legal jobs on a contract basis. These jobs by definition are temporary and do not have a guaranteed term. There are benefits to these types of attorney jobs. They help you to get your foot in the door and make professional contacts, while also allowing you to have flexibility and pursue other interests.
Seeking and Getting Jobs
Contact law firms directly.Small and medium law firms are increasingly looking for individual attorneys to hire on a temporary contract basis. This sort of outsourcing allows them to streamline their firm’s activities while offering their clients a fuller range of services.
Work with a professional placement agency.Many firms prefer to work through placement agencies, rather than hire a contract attorney on their own. Working through the agency allows the firm to save the time of reviewing resumes and application letters, and focus on getting the project completed. In some cases, the agency will become your employer and provide payment and even benefits.
Network with other attorneys.Friends and colleagues, who either run their own practices or who work for established law firms, may be able to help you get “in” with a firm that needs to hire out for contract work. Keep in touch, and let these people know that you are always available to pick up jobs.
Look for contract attorney jobs in the newspaper and online.Search the help wanted ads in your local newspaper, in professional legal publications, and on job boards online. People will often post ads for open positions or if they are looking for assistance.
Use your contract work as a networking tool for other work.When you are working on one job for a firm, you may find yourself in contact with attorneys from other firms. Take these opportunities to let them know that you are available and that you have expertise in your field. Don’t be bashful about asking if they may have vacancies in their firm.
Watch out for conflicts of interest.It is crucial to a working contract attorney that you keep accurate records of clients and involved parties so that you avoid conflicts of interest. When you receive an offer for work, you need to inquire first about the parties in the matter, and check that list against a list of parties from previous work.
- It may help to keep a spreadsheet of clients represented and their opponents, so that you can quickly search for names to rule out conflicts.
Making Yourself Desirable
Present yourself as a specialist.Staffing agencies who hire attorneys for contract work often look for specialists. As a specialist, you make yourself more desirable to individual law firms as well, who may be looking for someone to support their needs for a particular project.
- Obviously, you need to be honest. But if, for example, you have worked on several bankruptcy cases, you may choose to present yourself as having some expertise in that field.
Build up your bar membership credentials.Before you can work as a contract attorney, you obviously need a degree from a reputable law school. But beyond that, you can make yourself more marketable if you become a member of the bar in one or more jurisdictions.
- Becoming a member of the bar of a state does not always mean that you have to take the bar exam again. Many states have reciprocity agreements with each other, so that membership in one can lead to easier membership in another.
Build a positive reputation as a good worker.Even if temporary contract work is not your dream job, you need to treat it as such. Be professional in your interactions with other attorneys and clients. If you are working in the firm’s office, present yourself professionally. Be timely in completing your work, and be professional in the way you bill for it. The positive appearance that you give to one firm may pay off in additional offers with that or other firms.
Keeping a Steady Income
Keep good records for tax purposes.Because working as a contract attorney is less regular than working as an associate or partner for a single firm, you will need to keep good records of your various employers. When tax time comes, you will probably have an assortment of 1099 tax forms. Some placement agencies may hire you as their own employee and will submit W-2 forms.
- You may not receive a 1099 form for all work that you perform. Firms are required to report payments of over 0. If you do a job for less than that, you are not likely to receive a 1099. You are still required to report and pay taxes on all income that you earn. You will need to keep your own records for smaller amounts.
Consider filling up your time with your own clients.If you are able to find adequate contract work to fill your time and keep a steady income, that’s terrific. But if you find that you have down time between jobs, understand that many contract attorneys are able to keep a small practice of their own while also doing contract work. Keep networking in your local area and let your friends and colleagues know that you are available for private legal work.
Decide if you need your own malpractice insurance.This may change from project to project. When you get hired on a job, you should ask the firm or employment agency that is hiring you whether the firm’s malpractice insurance will cover you or if you need your own. You may find that you are more marketable (and you may sleep better) if you keep your own insurance.
Considering the Pros and Cons of Contract Work
Use the opportunity to broaden your experience.Whether you are working as a contract attorney by choice or because you have been unable to land a full-time position, take advantage of the contract work to gain experience. You can generally select the projects that you take, so you can decide if you want to specialize in something or become more of a generalist.
Treat the contract work as on-the-job training.Many law school educations are solid on legal theory but not so dedicated to practical experience. Spending some time as a contract attorney can give you practice in a wide range of legal fields.
- For example, you may be able to take projects drafting pleadings, conducting depositions, reviewing contracts or even attending meetings with clients. If you were a junior associate in a large firm, you would most likely get pigeon-holed into one area.
Consider contract work as a stepping stone to opening your private practice.Many of the elements of contract work are the same as working in your own practice. You set your hours, select a variety of projects, manage your billing, and keep records of your work. After you gain sufficient experience, you may find yourself ready to seek out clients of your own.
Be aware of the limited job security and unsteady income.Some people may be able to find steady work as a contract attorney, but many people find that they have substantial down time between projects. You may need to find some other part-time work to supplement your income at times.
Don't expect any career advancement.Even if you perform your work well and build positive relationships with the attorneys in the firms you work for, you are unlikely to advance. There are no associate/junior partner/partner ladders for you to climb as a contract attorney. Even the best, most experienced contract attorney remains a contract attorney.
- Many people who work as contract attorneys report that they feel overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Too often, the expectation is that contract attorneys will provide the same professional legal work as their full-time counterparts, but at much lower rates.
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