Best Practices For Working With A Freelance Attorney
You’ve been in court or at a deposition every day for the last two weeks. The pile of work sitting on your desk has reached new heights. Your small or medium-sized law firm is busting at the seams with more work than you can handle. So, you decide to outsource to a freelance attorney. For many reasons, this is a fantastic solution to your short-term or long-term staffing issues.
A freelance attorney is an attorney hired on a project by project basis by law firms. As opposed to a “contract lawyer” who generally handle projects such as document review, and is usually hired through a staffing agency, a “freelance attorney” is a term of art that describes an attorney who frequently works on in depth projects such as motion writing, depositions, and appeals. Hiring a freelance attorney is a cost-effective, and efficient solution for busy firms who need support but do not want to hire an associate.
If you are new to this practice, there are some things to keep in mind for a productive and successful relationship with your freelance attorney. Many articles offer detailed discussions on the ethical rules surrounding the hiring and use of a freelance attorney. These issues include conflicts of interest, the duty to preserve client confidences, the duty to disclose the relationship to the client, and appropriate billing and surcharges to the client. These topics are important to consider, but are outside the scope of this article.
Having been a freelance legal research and writing attorney since 2009, and having hired a freelance attorney to assist with my own practice, I can speak from both sides of the desk. Here are 14 tips for firms on how to navigate a productive, working relationship with a freelance attorney.
Hiring A Freelance Attorney.
- Meet Your Freelance Attorney. You’ve screened applicants through reviewing resumes, writing samples, and calling references. Your next step is to meet face to face with the freelance attorney. If schedules don’t allow for a face to face meeting, then try to arrange a meeting over skype or at the very least, over the phone. You are trusting this attorney with your case, your clients, and by extension, your reputation. Take a few moments just to meet with him or her, as you would if hiring an associate. Get a feel for how the attorney presents himself or herself, and whether you sense a good personality fit. The best case scenario for a relationship with a freelance attorney is a long term, and productive one. Set a solid foundation for that relationship from the beginning.
- Determine Your Level Of Competence To Supervise. Consider whether you are knowledgeable enough in the subject area to supervise the freelance attorney. California Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3-110 requires that all attorneys perform legal services competently. Rules of Court, Rule 3-110. As set forth by the State Bar of California’s Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct (“COPRAC”), that duty also requires a level of competent supervision. COPRAC has provided that “The Discussion under rule 3-110 explains that the duties set forth in rule 3-110 include the duty to supervise the work of subordinate attorneys...” COPRAC Formal Opinion 1992-126. Emphasis added. Although a freelance attorney is not an “employee”, the spirit of the law would likely still apply to the relationship.Before hiring a freelance attorney, be sure that he or she is competent to handle the task. In addition, be sure that you or your co-counsel, if any, has sufficient knowledge of the subject matter. In this way, you can properly supervise the project.
- Draft A Contract. Be sure to draft up a contract between you and your freelance attorney. Include topics such as the scope of the project, agreed upon compensation, and payment arrangements. Also, include topics such as hard and soft deadlines, discussed below.
- Effectively Communicate And Document The Assignment Requirements. Be sure to clearly communicate your expectations as to the assignment. Give your freelance attorney a concise summary of the substantive facts, and procedural history. This will prevent a well-intentioned and detailed freelance attorney from scouring the file, reviewing irrelevant information. Further, by telling the attorney precisely what order or other remedy you are looking for will ensure that you get the results that you want out of the project.
- Give Your Freelance Attorney A Road map. Apprise the freelance attorney of what you think the issues are. For instance, if you’ve hired a freelance attorney to oppose a motion for summary judgment, alert your freelance attorney to the legal and factual arguments that you see. Your freelance attorney will likely come up with his or her own arguments. But, you’ve been living with this case more intimately and longer than the freelance attorney. Giving your freelance attorney a road map will help make the writing process more efficient.
- Determine The Estimated Time Of Assignment Completion. Ask for a rough estimate of the project length. An experienced freelance attorney can likely give you an estimate of how long the project will take. For instance, after five years of practice, I can tell my law firm clients that it is unlikely that I can draft a motion for summary judgment, or an opposition, in less than 30 hours.
- Cap The Number Of Hours. If the attorney is uncertain about how long the project will take, you can cap the number of hours based on how long you think it should take, or based on the budget you have set for the project. I frequently do not go beyond a cap, if I am given one; however, as a general rule, I always tell my law firm clients at the beginning that I will let them know if I near the cap, and will likely exceed it. Sometimes, you just don’t know how legally complex an issue is until you start to research the nuances.
Another solution to this issues to consider a clause within your contract which would limit the hours according to your discretion. Then, include language that would require the freelance attorney to contact you to approve additional hours when he or she nears the capped amount, or when he or she reasonably forecasts going over the capped amount. This will not only prevent the freelance attorney from going beyond the scope of the budget, it will also allow greater communication with the freelance attorney as to scope of the project.
- Set A Hard And Soft Deadline. When setting a deadline, create a buffer zone, or soft deadline, so that you can review the assignment well before the hard deadline. Some firms go back and forth several times with the freelance attorney, amending arguments and tightening up the brief. It’s always a good idea to leave room for error. So, be sure your freelance attorney understands that a polished version of the assignment must be turned in 5 to 10 days, or however long you require, before the hard deadline.
- Allow For Sufficient Lead Time. Good writing demands plenty of time. Be sure to give your freelance attorney plenty of time to work on the assignment. A good writer understands that writing is about re-writing. I often say that I’m not a writer, but a “re-writer.” The writing process simply takes time. So, give your freelance attorney enough time to create a great product. This is particularly true if your freelance attorney is a newer attorney.
During The Assignment.
- Collaborate. Approach projects with a mind towards collaboration. You are the supervising attorney. As discussed above, set a soft deadline which would allow you enough time to read, review, and request or make changes. Along those same lines, listen and be open to feedback from the freelance attorney. Often, the freelance attorney spends an intense amount of time on the assignment, and may understand the complexities quite well, or he or she may have a different perspective. The judge may share that perspective. Thus, be open to listening to feedback.For instance, recently, a firm asked me to draft a motion for a charging order, which is a remedy designed to attach to a debtor’s interest in a business entity. While researching the project, I realized that the entity was canceled. Not only would a court likely not grant the request, even if the relief were granted, the time, expense and effort would likely have been in vain because the entity did not exist any longer. Upon informing the firm of the new information, I suggested an alternate remedy, which the principal attorney agreed to.
- Respond To Questions In A Timely Manner. Don’t let an email from your freelancer sit in your inbox for 5 days. Your freelance attorney may be balancing several other projects. In light of the deadlines involved in law, it’s imperative that you timely respond to any questions from your freelance attorney so that both soft and hard deadlines may be met. So, try to respond to your freelance attorney within the general rule of thumb of email response, within 24 hours. If you do not have an answer, or do not have the time to respond at that moment, then send a responsive email to that effect, and follow up later with a complete response.
- Use File Sharing Websites. Since freelance attorneys frequently work remotely, sharing documents, which may include hundreds of exhibits, can be difficult over email. Try using password-secured file sharing websites such as box.com, Clio, or dropbox.com. Once your freelance attorney uploads the projects to a file sharing website, you can easily download them to your own computer.
After The Assignment
- Give Feedback. I always want to know what my law firm clients think about my writing. This is especially true when I work with a new firm. So, offer some constructive criticism or tips on how to improve in the future. If you don’t have any criticism to offer, a nice pat on the back or a “thank you” is always appreciated! Also, let your freelance attorney know whether the motion or opposition was successful.
- Make Timely Payments. Freelance relationships can be long-term, which is mutually beneficial for the freelance attorney and the hiring law firm. Just as your freelance attorney turns in the assignment on time, it is only fair that his or her payment deadlines are similarly on time. Respecting the work and time of a freelance attorney can create the kind of long term relationship that can really help your firm for years to come.
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