Maybe it’s time to break free from the confines of the four walls of a single law firm or legal department.
You’ve put the time in working for a law firm, government agency, court system, or corporation, and over the years you’ve earned a solid reputation and the confidence it takes to establish a business and offer your services on a freelance basis. You’ve looked at the numbers and the potential to earn more while having more control over your hours so you can spend more time with your family, and going independent just makes sense for you.
According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, downsized legal departments within governmental agencies and law firms have prompted a greater need for freelance paralegals. If you’ve got the education and the experience, turning your attention to freelancing could be your best option for taking the career you’ve established for yourself in a new and more rewarding direction.
What is a freelance paralegal?
A: Freelance paralegals, sometimes called contract paralegals, are independent business owners that provide paralegal services to attorneys on a contract basis. Instead of working directly for attorneys, law firms, or governmental organizations as an employee on the payroll, freelance paralegals work for attorneys as independent contractors.
As a contract paralegal you are your own boss, and the attorneys you provide services for become your clients.
Most of the time you will be retained for a finite period of time to provide services for law firms on an “as needed” basis. This might mean working for the firm for a few days to process paperwork or for a number of months to research case law during a lengthy litigation.
The need for a firm to outsource paralegal work would arise when they get swamped with cases and have more than they can handle in house in a timely manner. The option to hire a paralegal on an as needed, short term basis allows firms to adjust their bandwidth when things get busy and keep things moving forward without delays, then scale back when fewer cases are in the pipeline.
It’s a win-win situation for both freelance paralegals and the firms that use their services: firms get to pay for just for the services they need when they need it, and paralegals get the opportunity to build a business around a model that gives them a greater level of freedom and earning potential serving a variety of clients.
You could choose to work from your own office, but more often
You may choose go totally solo, partner up and establish a team, or join an established service-group where you would be assigned freelance work and could even have your own office space and clerical help.
What are the advantages of working as a freelance paralegal?
A: Freelancing allows you to call the shots. After years of working under an attorney who told you when to jump and how high, you get to pick and choose assignments that interest you. This type of work provides you with the freedom of working when you want and choosing the attorneys or law firms you want to work with.
Working in a freelance, or independent, capacity allows you to break free of the monotony often associated with the paralegal profession, giving you access to diverse work environments, more variety in the duties you perform and the kind of cases you work with, and the potential to build a sizeable client base and earn more money.
What are the disadvantages of working as a freelance paralegal?
A: Unlike working as an employee, a steady paycheck is never guaranteed. Your income will rely just as much on your ability to market yourself and develop a list of clients as it does your skills and knowledge as a paralegal.
If you ever find yourself searching for work, the situation can be stressful; however, most won’t make the leap unless they already know there is a strong need for contracted legal services in their area and have enough connections to be confident that there will be plenty of work available. Once you get your name out there and you’ve become well established in the freelancing market, you should expect a steady flow of clients and work opportunities.
Of course, striking out on your own also means being responsible for paying your own health insurance, disability, and life insurance, and you can say good-bye to everything from vacation pay to expense accounts to a company cell phone. Talk to a handful of seasoned freelance paralegals, though, and they’ll tell you the freedom and flexibility freelancing offers is well worth this trade-off, and for the most ambitious, the money more than makes up for letting go of perks like these.
What is the job description of a freelance paralegal?
A: Your role and duties won’t change much from your days when you were on payroll with a law firm. As such, freelance paralegals are often called in to perform duties that routinely:
- Drafting and proofing documents
- Interviewing witnesses during preliminary investigations
- Engaging in trial preparation, including carrying out subpoenas and summarizing depositions
- Organizing and filing
- Preparing documents, including discovery motions, complaints, and bankruptcy plans, among others
- Researching case law
Freelance paralegals are often hired for trial preparation, so your services may be needed for a period of weeks or even months.
You might find yourself working as the only paralegal that has been retained for a particular case, which would involve being responsible for managing every aspect of the project and double-checking all your own work. You may also find that you are one part of a team, in which case your duties may be more specialized and narrowly defined.
What is the difference between a freelance paralegal and an independent paralegal?
The term freelance paralegal is often used interchangeably with “independent paralegal,” but there actually is an important difference that applies in some cases. The term independent paralegal has its own meaning in the few states that allow paralegals and other legal support professionals to offer certain basic legal services directly to the public.
By definition, paralegals work to assist attorneys, and under most state laws the attorney is ultimately responsible for the work they produce. These are a few states where there is an exception to this rule and where paralegals with the right credentials can provide some limited services independent of an attorney.
In Arizona, there is the option to become certified as a Legal Document Preparer (LDP), while in California there is a registration process for Legal Document Assistants (LDA), but the services LDPs and LDAs can offer direct to the public are restricted to legal document preparation. Washington State goes so far as to allow paralegals that meet strict education and experience requirements to test for the LLLT (Limited License Legal Technician) credential so that they’re legally allowed to provide advice and legal representation in family court proceedings for low-income families that can’t afford an attorney.
In these states it would be more important to use the terms separately and make the distinction between freelance and independent paralegals: Freelance paralegals provide their services to law firms and attorneys on a contract basis, while independent paralegals provide their services direct to consumers.
Further confusing the issue is the fact that freelance paralegals are also referred to as “independent contractors,” but this term just refers to the way they offer their services as independent business owners and doesn’t mean they work directly with the public.
What does it mean to work as an independent contractor?
A: As a freelancer, you are classified as an independent contractor in the eyes of the IRS when it comes time to pay your taxes. This, of course, means you would be responsible for handling your tax obligations on your own. At the end of each year you would receive an IRS Form 1099-MISC detailing the total amount you billed clients for service. You must then report all earnings to federal, state, and local government and pay all appropriate taxes.
Take the time to learn about how to make quarterly estimated tax payments rather than being stuck with the full tax bill at the end of the year, which could be hard to manage in a single payment.
You also want to track your work related expenditures very closely since these expenses can be written off. This means everything from your monthly cell phone bill, to larger one-time purchases like your laptop, to the number of miles you drive in the performance of your job. It may be worth your while to talk to a good tax advisor to learn about deductions you can take against your business income.
Most freelance paralegals bill hourly for their services, although it’s not uncommon for a client to pay you a fixed rate for an entire project.
Do I have to work by myself as a freelance paralegal or can I work as part of a larger group?
A: In what is commonly referred to as the service group model, you can join an association of other freelance paralegals while still retaining your status as an independent contractor. In an arrangement like this you might contribute to a fund to cover expenses like marketing for the group.
The team might be made up of paralegals with experience and certification in different specialized areas of law. This can create amazing opportunities for members to help each other succeed by referring clients to others in the network, consulting with associates with knowledge in a particular area of law, or even teaming up to work together on a larger project.
Different from this are legal services companies that employ a larger staff of paralegals and assign them to law firms on a contract basis, sort of like a temp firm. If you go to work for a company like this, the business would act as the independent contracting company and you would be on the payroll as a normal employee.
What is a virtual paralegal?
Virtual paralegals work remotely, providing services to attorneys using legal software programs, online communication services and file sharing services.
Virtual paralegals often work from the comfort of their home, providing services to attorneys just as they would if they were right there in the office, but without any restrictions based on where they might be located. Without being limited by locality, virtual paralegals can build a respectable client base regardless of their location or the location of their clients.
Of course, there are still some limitations to what can be done remotely. Since clients often prefer working face-to-face, and since some conversations are more at home behind the closed doors of an attorney’s office, virtual paralegals aren’t often used to assist with things like depositions or client interviews.
What are the educational requirements of a freelance paralegal?
A: Because the paralegal profession is not regulated, there are no tried-and-true rules about what you should possess as a freelance paralegal. However, it stands to reason that your resume should look pretty impressive if you expect clients to request your services.
A two-year or four-year degree in paralegal studies is standard fare for freelance paralegals, and specialization is always a plus. A resume detailing one or more focused legal specialties, obtained through experience, education, or both, can be a valuable addition to your resume. A focused legal specialty with a graduate certificate or a master’s degree in legal studies carries a lot of weight and speaks to the validity of your expertise.
There is often a question of how much experience you should have as a freelance paralegal. While this may be debatable, know that your ability to snag freelance work will rely heavily on your past experience as a paralegal. The best freelance paralegals are those who have experience in a variety of areas and those who have advanced to mid- or senior-level positions.
Companies hiring freelance paralegals are likely looking for seasoned pros who have been in the profession for a number of years and have advanced and/or specialized in one or more areas of law.
Are there any specific credentials I should hold as a freelance paralegal?
A: While no state or national regulations or requirements exist to practice as a paralegal, there are several professional designations that carry a lot of weight in the legal field—particularly for freelancers.
Advanced professional certification is a fantastic (and really effective) way to develop and demonstrate your mastery of the legal field and of a specific area of law. Any freelance paralegal can whip up an impressive resume that talks up their skills, but a professional designation is concrete evidence that you’ve gone through a formal program, demonstrated competency through testing and have the credential to prove it.
Consider education, experience, and professional certification as the ultimate trifecta for marketing yourself as a reliable authority in the paralegal field.
NALA’s Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) designation allows paralegals who hold the CP credential to earn specialty certification in one of 26 practice areas recognized by NALA. Earning specialty certification through NALA requires taking the appropriate web-based course and passing a final assessment.
NFPA’s Registered Paralegal (RP) designation is indicative of a paralegal who has been working in the profession for a number of years and has therefore achieved a higher level of knowledge. To earn the RP designation, you must take and pass the PACE Exam.
In addition to NFPA’s RP designation, you can also earn specialty certification through NFPA. NFPA partners with the Advanced Paralegal Institute (API) to offer 5 advanced specialty certificates:
- Corporate Law
- Elder Law
- Intellectual Property
- Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution
- Corporate Law
NALS Specialty Certificate allows experienced paralegals to display their expertise in a specialty area of law. To earn this certificate, you must complete at least 50 continuing legal education credit (CLE) hours within a five-year period in your law specialty of choice.
What is the average salary for freelance paralegals?
A: A 2016 NALA Utilization and Compensation Survey Report found that about 3 percent of all paralegals identified being self-employed/business owners. In 2016, the average, annual compensation for a paralegal was $61,671, about 6 percent higher compared to 2014.
While exact salaries for freelance paralegals are hard to come by, a number of professional associations report freelance paralegals billing between $22 and $45 an hour, with experience, specialization, the complexity of the job, and the geographic location all affecting billing rates.
What are the ethical responsibilities of a freelance paralegal?
A: While you may be your own boss, you’re still a paralegal, and any services you provide are still under the supervision and direction of a licensed attorney. This means you cannot practice law, offer legal advice, or represent clients in court (with a few, narrow exceptions).
As a freelancer who may provide services for more than one law firm, you must also avoid conflict of interest situations. For example, if you work for several law firms in the same area of law, you may find yourself providing services for opposing sides of the same case. If there is ever a question about conflict of interest, it is your ethical responsibility to immediately inform both attorneys.
To ensure you are always acting within the parameters of your profession, it’s wise to always provide your services to attorneys, not directly to the public, except in the few states where properly credentialed professionals are allowed to do so.
There are paralegals in certain states that don’t have legal language that expressly prohibits providing legal services directly to the public and who push the bounds of the profession. This can sometimes lead to muddy waters with regard to what constitutes legal advice or representation. Though providing legal document services in these states is perfectly legal, you are advised to tread carefully if you decide to go this route.
Know the ABA State Bar rules where you live and work, conduct yourself within the parameters of these rules, and protect yourself with business insurance. There are a number of companies that provide business insurance for freelance paralegals.
How do I get a freelancing career off the ground?
A: Your reputation must remain your top priority as a freelance paralegal. You must treat every client like they’re the only one you have, and you must be highly trustworthy, dependable, and punctual. If you lack in any of these areas, your freelancing career may be dead before it even gets off the ground.
You’ve likely made some valuable contacts over the years, so now is the time to get the word out. Market yourself, get business cards, letterhead, and a good website up and running. Invest in a separate business line, personal computer, printer/fax machine, post office box, and a subscription to WESTLAW or Lexis/Nexis.
Gather up a nice portfolio, draft a services contract, and create and maintain a social media presence.
You may want to begin by working part-time until you develop a nice list of clients before diving full-time into paralegal freelance work. You will find that building a good base clientele is just as much about strong referrals as it is about marketing yourself, so your ability to develop a strong reputation as a skilled paralegal is paramount.