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By: Jamie Collins
Today’s topic is another one that has been chiseling away at my partially-caffeinated, semi-weary paralegal soul for a L-O-N-G time. So today, I’m climbing up onto the TPS stage to share my candid thoughts on the subject. (I did also intelligently seek the insight of a successful freelancer, Pamela Starr, CBA, J.S.M., for final thoughts and wisdom on the topic.) This one goes out to all of the newbies out there, and the experienced paralegals, too.
What are you waiting on? Let’s delve right in…
Can you, the newbie paralegal, become a freelancer?
As in – is it humanly possible?
Is it practical?
(Make that a BIG no.)
Is it likely you will succeed as a newbie freelancer?
(Not without at least 5+ years of extensive paralegal experience.)
Newbies, I’d like to start off by telling you that I’m one of your biggest cheerleaders – I really am. Those of you who know me (from reading this blog) know I am the opposite of doom and gloom. While I do not claim to be all sunshine and roses, y’all know I do tend to write the truth, as I see it. I attempt to do so in an interesting, entertaining, relatable, and often humorous fashion on most days. But some topics require brutal honesty. To give you anything less than my candid thoughts would do a major disservice to both, you and the industry, at large. So shout it from the legal mountain, I shall.
Perhaps you are enrolled in a paralegal program right now. You may be a recent graduate. You may be in the early stages of contemplating your future career in the legal biz. You may even be ready to hit the “go” button on this whole newbie-as-a-freelancer thing, but before you do (for the love of all that is legal), read this article first.
Why is it difficult for a newbie to become a freelancer? That’s an excellent question. And I’m going to do the big reveal. But first, I’d like to ask you some really important questions to help you glean a little insight. Here are the first three:
ONE: Are there several attorneys who LIKE you? (In a professional capacity)
TWO: Are there several attorneys who RESPECT you?
THREE: Are there several attorneys who TRUST you?
If you did not answer in the affirmative to all three of these questions, starting your own paralegal business is probably NOT going to work out, in reality, the way it’s working out in your mind. Again, no doom and gloom here, folks – just cold, hard reality via a candid blog post. Okay, maybe a thunderbolt. But just one. Let’s pretend I’m riding a unicorn to keep the mood light…Moving on.
I have three more questions for you:
FOUR: Are there several attorneys who LIKE your work product?
FIVE: Are there several attorneys who RESPECT your work product?
SIX: Are there several attorneys who TRUST your work product?
In my opinion, you must answer all six of the essential questions posed above in the affirmative before you flip the switch on this whole hanging out a legal shingle and “being my own boss” thing. Here’s why. Attorneys who do not like you, respect you, and trust you, will probably NOT be interested in hiring you, as the unknown, untested newbie with no track record or esteemed reputation. (No, not forever, but definitely not until you prove yourself and your work product to a handful of them.) Further, if you have no past paralegal experience, impressive work background or stellar recommendations from reputable attorneys (that the attorneys you want to hire you like, respect and trust), other attorneys will probably NOT entertain hiring you for a flat minute. Nope, not even one. They may not laugh in your face, but they’re also not going to enter into a mutually beneficial work relationship either.
It probably bears mentioning that when I refer to “paralegal experience” what I really mean is sitting in the legal hot seat, learning how to execute seemingly “impossible” tasks like a legal ninja on a daily basis for a period of at least 5+ years. That will look a little something like 10,400 hours clocked in the legal experience department. In my opinion, it takes 2 years just to have a modicum of a clue what in the heck you’re doing as a paralegal. It’s around the 2 year mark when you’re learning how to really do the job well, because at long last, you have the fundamentals down.
I had about 5 years of solid paralegal experience before I ever even “dreamed” the word freelancer in any realistic, semi-feasible fashion. In the event you answered all 6 of those questions in the affirmative and aren’t running scared, fast as heck in the other direction, here are some additional points to consider if you are considering becoming a freelancer:
Esquire up. Not only should you know attorneys before starting your own business – you should know A LOT of them. In fact, make a list of the ones you think will actually hire you for “contract” work. (And by “contact,” I mean on a contract basis, per the hour/project. I don’t mean working on contracts, literally.) The attorneys who like, respect, and trust you – and your work product will be your future client base. If you’ve got this going for you already, you may be able to turn freelancing into a lucrative gig or at least a fruitful side gig.
Expect long hours. Some of the most successful paralegal freelancers I know work a solid 80+ hours per week. According to paralegal freelancer, Pamela Starr, if 1/3 of that time is billable, you’re lucky. Expect to put in countless hours running your behind the scenes operations, dealing with technology issues, marketing your services, making new connections…and the list goes on and on.
You will need a start up fund. (By this I mean thousands and thousands of dollars.) You are essentially starting your own business. Treat it as such. You will need to purchase, rent or lease office equipment: a computer, fax machine, telephone, dedicated phone line, copier, scanner, software, dictation/transcription abilities, secure storage for files/documents, just to name a few. Network with successful freelancers. Ask them what they would recommend. Also, check out the freelancer articles we previously shared on The Paralegal Society.
You will need money to live on. Even with an impressive rolodex of professional connections, you must have the financial prowess to keep you and your business afloat in the early weeks/months of starting up. (Okay, maybe more realistically 6 months to a year.) You’ll also need to have back up funds in the event you have an unexpected expenditure or unfortunate incident befall you. (Remember that expensive office equipment? It sometimes breaks. You never know what difficulties you may encounter.) Save 6+ months of back up funds to support yourself through early times and tough times, too. I’m guessing most of the experienced freelancers among us would probably tell you that need at least 6-9 months of living expenses in order to survive.
You will need to set the rates for your services. When doing so, consider the tax implications. Yes, there are several. Since you are your own employer, you’ll need to account for payroll taxes accordingly. This means you will need to charge more on an hourly basis than you actually intend to “make” (as in net/clear) because you will be responsible for paying your own federal and state taxes. You won’t have an employer footing that for you anymore. Set your rates accordingly. Seek the guidance of a savvy accountant. (Yes, that will probably cost you money, too.)
You will need liability insurance. You’ll want to check out liability insurance rates if you plan to work as a freelance paralegal. Since you are essentially your own employer, you’ll need to insure yourself against any unfortunate events or occurrences. If you were ever accused of wrongdoing, improper conduct or a claim or lawsuit is filed against you, you’ll need that liability insurance coverage. Call the agents. Shop the rates. Get the coverage. Have your liability bases covered.
You will need to establish and set up a LLC or incorporation. I’m not giving you any business advice here, people – I’m just a paralegal blogger person. Contact a reputable attorney to get your LLC or incorporation paperwork in order. Protect your personal assets. Set your business structure up right. (Yes, that business attorney is probably going to cost you some big bucks, but it will be well worth the investment on the front end.) Better to pay now, than to “pay” later.
You + a standard contract and suitable business forms = YES! You’re going to need them. Have them formally drawn up by an attorney to protect your interests. Perhaps you know an attorney who will do it for you free of charge. But if not, you can expect to pay about $200+ per hour for that type of thing. (That slush fund just keeps growing.)
You will need marketing materials. And they better look good or attorneys won’t like, respect, and trust your brand or think you have anything worth offering. Think business cards, letterhead, custom headers for faxes, e-mail signatures, etc. Consider a catchy name, professional logo design and brand identity. If you don’t have one (a brand, that is) that is what your brand will actually become – not much. (And who wants a non-existent brand that sucks? No one – that’s who.)
The marketing materials you send out are an extension of you. They speak to others in a room before you enter it and hopefully, long after you depart. Your materials need to look phenomenal. I’m hoping you have a graphic design artist/friend on your list of connections. If not, look one up. You’re gonna need it! (And yes, you’ll have to pay for that, too.)
You will need templates. Every good paralegal has templates. Every good paralegal loves templates. It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked in the profession 10 minutes, 10 days or 10 years, paralegals live or die by their templates. You will need to stockpile common forms to streamline your efficiency, your work product, and your time. It probably bears mentioning that you’ll need some legal experience in order to know what forms you’ll need and whether the ones you have are any good or not.
Expect collection issues. Not every attorney for whom you do legal work is going to eagerly write you a check for that work on the day he/she receives it. That makes things tough for a freelancer. A firm’s finances typically ebb and flow (especially at small firms) much like a household’s budget, so you may be waiting longer than you’d like or expect to wait to receive that “big” check in the mail. Be prepared to carry your overhead, expenses and personal bills, as needed, along the way.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather, it’s the bare bones minimum of the things you must consider PRIOR to becoming a freelancer. Remember that L-R-T quotient, it’s an important one – you want to be liked, respected, and trusted. And don’t forget that as a U.S. paralegal, you’ll need to work under the supervision of an attorney. Steer clear of any UPL (unauthorized practice of law) issues!
If I haven’t managed to scare you off yet, it is possible you may one day become a wildly successful freelancer. You could be the next big thing to take the esquired kingdom by storm. Just be sure to keep it real on your way there.
Consider the essentials. Gain valuable experience. Make those plans. Save that money. Blaze those trails.
“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” –Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Birth Sings
If you’re ready, go get ‘em.
If you’re not – wait until you are.
Do you have any additional points to add to today’s topic, TPSers? Hit that comment button and tell us about ‘em. We’re listening…