Freelancing as an Attorney May Provide both Balance and a Boost to Your Legal Career

Freelancing as an Attorney May Provide both Balance and a Boost to Your Legal Career

Entrepreneurial attorney fills need for both attorneys seeking alternative work setting, and firms seeking a more nimble workforce.

It turns out that I am not the only entrepreneurial attorney in the State of Maine, or even in my firm.  When I was interviewing last spring and considering a transition to my position, I met Nicole Bradick - she was kind enough to meet me for coffee although she was out on maternity leave with her second child at the time.  Her practical review of the pros and cons of the firm, and of practicing law as a young parent was very refreshing.  Soon after returning from maternity leave, she elected to go part-time in our office, and somehow manages to juggle running a business and raising two gorgeous children.

Her business came to fruition as a way to help other attorney/parents who are not so fortunate, and find themselves in impossible situations of being stretched too thin between work and familial obligations.  She recounts stories of young, talented lawyers she talks to, and both of us are appalled at how some firms treat their associates.  She can best describe what she is creating in Custom Counsel:

You have become a bit of a poster child for work-life balance among lawyers with young children.  What two character traits would you say have best served you in navigating your career path to find balance?

For me, the most important thing has been being able to cut myself some slack.  Like most lawyers, I have no shortage of pride and always want to succeed in everything I do.

There was no compromise in law school - I launched myself into it fully and did well.  As a young associate, I worked hard and met every developmental milestone a young associate could hope for.  Once I had my first child, though, my focus was suddenly on something other than succeeding in my career.  I tried for a while to maintain my full-time work load, but always felt like I wasn't giving my son enough.  When I had my second child shortly after, I finally had to admit something to myself that was extremely difficult: I simply, positively, could not do it all.  I wasn't being the lawyer/employee that I wanted to be, and I wasn't being the mother that I wanted to be.  So, I made the choice to err on the side of being the kind of mother I wanted to be.  Once I was able to admit to myself that I couldn't do it all, I cut down my work hours and began outsourcing some of the small stuff (like hiring a housekeeper, no matter how difficult it was to squeeze into the budget).  A huge weight was lifted from me - I was able to take action because I was honest with myself about how much capacity I actually had.

The second trait I would say has been useful to me is that I have been unapologetic - about having children, about having to tend to their needs, about needing a flexible schedule, etc.

In my experience, women often strive to be collaborative as opposed to confrontational.  I tend to be that way myself.  Unfortunately, that doesn't get us what we want or need.  The best advice my father ever gave me is "don't ask, don't get."  I always advise women who are trying to figure out how to talk to their firms to come up with exactly what would work for them, and then go in and simply tell them what you want.  It is amazing how infrequently this happens. The worst thing they can tell you is "no."  Children are young for such a short period of time and if you don't ask for what you want you'll some day regret it.  If you choose to devote more time to your family than your career, there is absolutely, positively, nothing to apologize for.  In addition, if you approach your firm apologetically seeking a flexible schedule, you are exposing weakness in negotiating for what you want.  If you were going in to a mediation, would you apologize for taking a certain position on your client's behalf?  Never!  So don't do it when you are advocating for yourself.

It is easy to see the benefit to attorneys who want a different schedule, to offer services through a contract network.  What benefits are there for the law firm hiring contract attorneys?  Do you see or predict a trend of increasing usage of contract attorneys by firms?

The brilliant thing about freelance work is that it truly is a symbiotic relationship benefitting the freelance lawyer, the hiring lawyers, and the end client.

Particularly for solo practitioners and small firms, it is often very difficult to manage the ebbs and flows of a legal practice.  During the busy times, it can be tempting to hire, but it's also risky if the increased work flow doesn't last long.  Freelance lawyers typically bill significantly less than a comparable attorney associated with a law firm, and the American Bar Association (as well as the vast majority of jurisdictions who have opined on this issue) has said that the hiring lawyer can add a surcharge to those low hourly rates when billing the end client, as long as the overall rate charged to the client is reasonable.  This allows the hiring attorney to add another profit center to his or her firm without adding the overhead associated with hiring.  In turn, the result is often lower bills to clients.  It is truly a win-win situation.

Particularly with the current economic crisis, the use of contract lawyers is on the rise.  Law firms that have embraced the use of freelancers have been able to stay nimble and increase their bottom line despite the down economy.  The ability to ramp up when you need to and scale back when you don't with skilled counsel is very attractive to firms right now.  With all that has happened over the past few years with large firms going under and dramatic shifts in the business of law, hiring freelancers should continue to be an important part of any firm's business strategy going forward, even as the economy approves.

If a young lawyer is reading this post, while working in a situation that is causing then to consider leaving their job or law altogether, what would you say to them?

My first piece of advice would be to make sure that your current situation really can't work for you.  I often speak with young parents who raise barriers in their own minds to achieving flexibility with their workplace that don't actually exists.  In fact, I was one of them.

I had told myself that part-time wasn't an option because I'm a litigator.  My firm didn't tell me that, I had decided it myself.

Alas, here I am, successfully litigating on a very part-time schedule.  Before looking elsewhere, be sure to have an honest conversation with your firm about what you want and whether or not it is available there.  Let them tell you that it won't work before you decide that for yourself.  It is always easier to negotiate a flexible arrangement with your current employer who knows you, trusts you, and values you as a member of the team.

If it is clear that your firm is simply not going to be able to provide you with the work/life balance you are looking for, start asking around.  Have lunch with other young parents in other firms who seem to have things figured out.  Think seriously about non-profit work, freelance work, solo practice, or other alternative careers where you would still practice law, but with a less rigid schedule.  There are many ways to practice law, and it is important to rule out the pros and cons of all of the alternatives to see if any of those paths would suit your needs.  Just because you may have had a bad situation with one firm or one way of practicing law doesn't mean that a good situation doesn't exist for you.

Finally, if you simply think it won't work for you, it's okay to start thinking about leaving the law.  Like any profession, it just might not work for some people for a host of reasons.   Just be sure that they are real reasons, and not reasons you are creating in your own mind.

With a lot of buzz around whether or not women lawyers can "have it all" - what is your take on whether lawyers who are parents (either gender) can have career success AND familial success?

Well, of course you can... as long as your definition of "having it all" is reasonable. I don't believe it is reasonable to expect to be a high-powered litigator working on major international arbitrations, yet be present to tuck your kids into bed each night.  You CAN expect to be able to have an enjoyable, successful career (by just about anyone' s standards) and be home in time to spend quality time with your family at the end of the day.  I think for most people, that is "having it all."  If your definition of "having it all" is to be with your kids part-time or full-time, but to continue to do high-level legal work on your own terms, that's where networks like Custom Counsel come into play.   There are so many ways to arrange your life and career so that you strike the balance you want.  You just have to work at it and recognize that there are times in your life where the balance will tilt a little more towards work, and there are times where the balance will tilt more towards family.  Be flexible with yourself, and adjust as need be.

Chelsea Callanan is the founder of Happy Go Legal, a multi-media resource for new and aspiring legal professionals.  Mrs. Callanan is a 2008 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, and currently practices at Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland, Maine, focusing on corporate and intellectual property needs of business of all sizes.