Starting as a 3L, I did contract work for other lawyers. It continued for a couple of years while I worked as a solo practitioner, and ultimately landed me my associate attorney position.
All of my contracting work came from solo practitioners and small firms, so I can’t speak to the big-firm contracting experiences. Generally, this was contract research and writing, but it also included writing posts for legal blogs. (Go figure.)
I still get asked a lot about contact work by law students and new grads who are looking for work or who aren’t sure what they want to do yet, and who think contracting may be a good way to tide them over until they get a “real” job (or open a solo practice) or figure out what it is they really want to do.
Really? It’s a great thing to do to learn new things and to make some extra money. For almost everyone trying to get work as a contractor, it’s not the viable alternative “work/life balance friendly” option that our career services touted it as.
Once I did a presentation for law students about contract work. Someone asked, seriously, what about health benefits? And I answered, seriously, marry a federal employee. They all laughed.
I wasn’t kidding.
Contract work can be great. I learned new areas of the law, I made connections, I networked, I got to work sophisticated cases I never would have seen as a new solo practitioner. And yet, I never could have lived on the money I made doing it. It supplemented my solo practice.
But you’re still interested? Fine. Here’s the scoop:
A contract attorney usually gets called at the last (or nearly last) minute to perform some research and writing task that the principal attorney doesn’t have the time or motivation to do. The most common place I’d get called in, though, is to respond to motions for summary judgment. (I rock those.)
And also, just about every contract job I’ve had came through word of mouth, from classmates and from other practitioners. I responded to a few ads, but only one of them netted anything.
I enjoyed contract work, for the most part. I love going through discovery and digging for useful facts. I love drafting tricky requests for production and admission (no interrogatories here in state court). I love reading depositions. I love writing legal arguments and I love working on complex litigation.
I really love finding out that it was my memo or brief that kept the case from being tossed.
Another plus? Attorneys pay more regularly than clients, and usually promptly.
But there are drawbacks. Like I said, it’s not something you’re likely to make a living from in the beginning. Sometimes you have more work than you can handle, but most of the time you don’t, and it’s impossible to predict when the lean times will come.
And how do you know what to charge? Sometimes the local law school career services office can point you at a range, but it’s still an art form. Attorneys (like clients or anyone else) tend to put a value on services, and if you charge too little, you may be perceived as downmarket. If you charge too much, you may price yourself out of a job.
When I started doing contract work as a law student, I charged $20/hour. (I know, it’s crazy low, right? I was pretty much doubling what my peers charged, on the basis that I knew I was a better writer. Humble? Not so much…or at least, not about that.) By my last contract job, I was charging $75/hour. By that point, I had a lot of wins under my belt and could get away with it.
And attorneys can be difficult to work for. Some solos are difficult personalities, or at least very particular people. Some micromanage and want constant updates. Some want a yes person — basically, someone to rubber stamp or verify what they want to do. When this happens to me, I try to explain why something will probably not work, but also try to point out areas where an argument might be strengthened.
Another consideration is office culture — is the attorney the controlling type, who doles out information in dribs and drabs and always leaves you guessing about the rest of the case? It’s frustrating, because while they may have all the facts about the case in their head, I wouldn’t — and I couldn’t do my best work without reading the file, top to bottom. Attorneys may not want to pay you all that time to get up to speed, but you can’t do a good job unless you do.
Pro tip: Always try to get as much of the client file as you can before you work on a project — insist on reading the depositions, even if the attorney tells you not to bother.
Sometimes it’s hard being in the background. Only one attorney I regularly worked for would trumpet my involvement to both his clients and to other attorneys. Usually I didn’t get any credit at all.
Often I would never know how things turn out after I finished the assignment and emailed an invoice. One attorney I worked for a few times a year, so months would go by without my hearing from him, and I’d wonder if I did a good job or if he hated it. The only way I’d know was when the next job from him goes in.
So is it worth it? For the exposure, the experience, and the connections — yeah. And the money helps, even if it’s not enough to live on.
(Want more information about law practice? Conveniently, I wrote a book! The Attorney At Large’s Guide to Practicing Law, Part I is available through Amazon. Or check out The Attorney At Large’s Guide to Law School. Both support this blog and my hat and book habits.)