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Working as a traditional paralegal at a law firm, corporation or other entity is predictable … well, okay, most of the time. You generally rely on a modicum of set hours, salary, benefits and a specific area or areas of law in which you work. You have some expectation that you will receive a paycheck at the end of each week or pay period. You work with the same few people on a regular basis and learn to adapt to their work ethics and habits. Not so, if you work as a freelance paralegal, also known as contract or independent paralegals (referring to paralegals working with attorney supervision). When you provide contract paralegal services to small firms and sole practitioners, you work with a greater number of variables, people and habits. Very little is predictable. For every not-so-great aspect of freelancing for small firms and solos, however, there are just as many benefits. MONEY After more than 10 years of doing freelance work in the Chicago suburbs, Cathy Heath said her best clients are still the small firms. There aren’t as many “hoops” to go through to get the job done, said Heath. She points out that larger firms or corporations sometimes have so many hands in the pie that getting anything done can be made more difficult. Smaller firms in more rural areas do not always have the experience or staff to handle the type of work best suited to paralegals, so Heath has managed to impress many attorneys with her litigation support work. She recalls, however, earlier years when some office personnel with whom she worked were concerned about her role; they weren’t sure what to make of paralegals. That problem has all but disappeared as secretaries and associates learned she was not there to step on anyone’s toes. They’ve seen her come in, do the job, and do it well. ADVANTAGES Many freelance paralegals across the nation agree that the number one benefit of contract work is flexible hours, followed by the ability to expand your practice areas and perform more substantive tasks, working with a diverse group of attorneys and legal staff and an increased feeling of self-worth that comes with owning your own business. You get to make the decisions, such as which software or hardware to buy, what association meetings are an approved expenditure and which client to dump. (Reasons to jettison clients include not paying bills on time and failure to provide adequate supervision. Or, perhaps, you just don’t like working with them.) Nearly every advantage has its correlating disadvantage. Everything you do costs you, not an employer, money — from upgrading your computer capability to wear and tear on your vehicle attending CLE seminars. The list goes on. Making good business decisions becomes just as important as the paralegal work you are performing. A huge benefit of having many small-firm clients, as opposed to a few large-firm clients, is the ability to meet the IRS requirements that define independent contractors and permit a tax deduction for home office. Another benefit to having many clients is the diversity and challenge of working in several practice areas and with more people. One thing is guaranteed — if you don’t like one small source of income, you can replace it more easily than one that provides a large percentage of your income. As your business grows, you can afford to be more selective when deciding for whom you will work. National Federation of Paralegal Associations’ (NFPA) members remember Philadelphia’s Silvia Lee for her impressive contributions to pro bono paralegal work and receiving NFPA’s 1999 Individual Pro Bono Award. She converted those many years of experience with Volunteers for Indigent People, Friends of Farm Workers and social work into a very successful freelance business in just one year. She combined her immigration, labor and employment law and workers comp paralegal experience with an office manager’s background. Lee enjoys her new-found flexibility and being able to jump into many situations and specialty practice areas as a freelance paralegal. NETWORKING AND SUPPORT Every freelancer consulted for this article agrees that networking is imperative to both their business and their paralegal work. Each is quite active in her local paralegal association and in NFPA. Arizona’s Lee Davis agrees that some of her best leads and referrals come from colleagues, as well as from paralegals with whom she has worked as she moves from one firm or corporation to another. Heath, however, cautions that a contract paralegal should be careful to avoid becoming consumed with professional activities to the detriment of the time put into the paralegal business, especially in the early building years. Denver freelancer Judith Baxter-Warrington describes the Rocky Mountain Paralegal Association’s freelance group as one of her largest sources of support. The RMPA group started with four paralegals and in ten years has grown to approximately 40 freelancers. They meet regularly to network and discuss problems of freelancing such as running their businesses, obtaining insurance, complying with IRS regulations governing independent contractors, and stress factors associated with freelance work. All of the freelancers interviewed have extensive computer and Internet capabilities and consider them key to their success. A large percentage of contract work is research-oriented, so NFPA’s research links at www.paralegals.org make life much easier. Maintaining up-to-date computer hardware and software can be quite costly, however — much more so than many traditionally employed colleagues might imagine. Heath enjoys the freedom to maintain the most up-to-date software for each client but recognizes that you must make informed buying decisions. It can be a challenge to buy all that you need, yet still obtain a return on your investment. Further, the responsibility to ensure adequate security measures for confidentiality is solely the responsibility of the freelancer. Baxter-Warrington finds being able to have the tools to get the work done such a relief after having to go through what she called a “ridiculously slow process” to obtain approval to upgrade or purchase software in traditional employment. In her litigation practice, Davis regularly uses four programs — Word, WordPerfect, Summation and Sanctions — to ensure compatibility with all of the small firms with which she works. She points out that, although you can pick and choose what you want to do as a contract paralegal, the real business comes when the attorneys need to “call in the troops” for document review, searches or coding. After nearly 15 years in the freelance business, she has a full-fledged staff of paralegal employees, paralegal independent contractors (who are each incorporated individually) and office personnel. With that staff, Davis is able take on the more challenging work that walks through her door and still satisfy her client’s need for the less complex work. She still attends every initial client meeting to make sure the job will be done well, and she can step in if the need arises. BIGGEST PITFALLS Although the downsides of running a contract paralegal business are few, they can be the most determinative factors in your success or failure. For instance, no one goes to work and expects to wait forever to get paid. Unfortunately, all freelancers face this possibility at one time or another, and it’s not pretty. One might think a contract would ensure prompt payment. Wrong! Can you imagine having to sue an attorney for your compensation? Well, it happens, and we are not speaking of questionable work product or excessive, inaccurate billing — just plain old defaulting on the bill. If our paperwork is in order, we usually collect in the end — but who wants the aggravation? It’s just one of those things you accept as a part of owning a business. While a home office can be a huge advantage, it can also be another pitfall for freelancers. Consider that the work is always there — 24-7, 52 weeks a year, on holidays, on weekends and even during vacation. While we know unreasonable attorney expectations for turnaround time are not exclusive to freelancers, several clients may present with emergencies at the same time. Working from a home office requires good time-management skills and discipline. Having a large client base is important when working with smaller firms and sole practitioners. Baxter-Warrington reports there have been times that her two primary clients have required that she devote all her time to their caseloads; at other times, she handles work for multiple clients every day. She said the fluctuations are mostly due to the nature of family law during trials or heavy discovery periods, as well as her conscience. She doesn’t want to do the assignments too early if the attorney thinks the matter will settle early; neither does she want to leave everything until the last minute. CONSIDERATIONS Probably, the most important consideration in working with small firms is where you and your skills fit into the scheme of things. Assume for a minute that you are providing services to a general practitioner — a sole practicing attorney who does a little matrimonial, a little estates & trusts, a little personal injury, and a tad here and there in other specialties. Most paralegals working today have the basic education and knowledge of research to work in all of those areas, but that doesn’t mean we can or should. It’s more than likely that a paralegal who is experienced enough to perform contract work has already developed a specialty. He or she may not have kept up as much with other areas of law. Do we accept the work and pray we get up to speed in time to finish the assignment? Who gets billed for the extra time we take to perform the work — the attorney, who in turn bills the client? Or, do we “eat” the time because the attorney is a good client for whom we want to continue doing work? There is no such thing as being paid for administrative time in the freelance business. Lee has managed to find attorneys willing to work with her and train her in some new practice areas. She enjoys the exposure and thinks it improves her job security and increases her freelance marketability. Baxter-Warrington, a 12-year veteran in freelance family law work, considers the more substantive tasks she performs an expanded responsibility from traditional employment. Because attorneys rarely revise the complex documents she drafts, she believes she must be doing a good job. But reverse the situation. Take, for example, an attorney who specializes in criminal law. You normally don’t do criminal law work, but every time this attorney gets a P.I. matter, your specialty, she calls you. Does the attorney have the necessary knowledge to supervise your work properly? Or is she relying on your experience in your specialty? Baxter-Warrington said she had to stop working for one client because she felt she was getting too close to the UPL line. When adequate supervision isn’t there or cannot be obtained, and the UPL is too close, we get out rather than risk the possibility of hurting the ultimate client. THE CONTRACT This brings us to the contract needed in freelance work. All freelance paralegals work with supervision of attorneys; most, but not all, work with a written contract that should refer to that supervision. Lee finds that a written contract, followed up with an e-mailed confirmation of the specific tasks per case, works best for her. Davis has a contract with her clients and with each of the independent contractors and paralegal employees on her staff. She follows up to make sure that each of those staff persons is receiving direct attorney supervision. Including these provisions ensures that the attorney understands he or she is responsible for the work, the paralegal is not engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, and the client is protected. Another important consideration in freelance work is preventing conflicts of interest, one of the most serious issues determined by the New Jersey courts when opining on contract paralegals. Obviously, responsibility for maintaining the information rests solely with the freelance paralegal. Davis found out just how tough it is to re-create a conflicts-of-interest record when her database crashed a few years ago, understandable after working in this field for 22 years. Even so, she has yet to be conflicted out of a case because of the inordinate steps she takes to maintain these records. This author, specializing in medical malpractice, products liability and personal injury litigation, includes in that database not just the case name and docket, listing all parties, but all of their counsel, expert witnesses and contact information. COMBINING CONTRACT WORK WITH RELATED BUSINESS Lee, a bilingual paralegal, continues to work as a certified interpreter. Davis is a certified software trainer and re-seller. This author has taught courses in litigation and ethics to paralegal students and at continuing legal education seminars. Many contract paralegals use additional routes to supplement income, carry them over during a slow season, and diversify their work day and experience. The most important benefit to having related work is the increased exposure to people in the legal field and the doors it opens to more freelance work. Davis finds the combination quite rewarding. If she goes into a firm that uses an antiquated software program or none at all, she is able to suggest the software she knows can do the job before her, build the program to suit that firm’s needs, train its staff on input, and oversee the project. While at another firm training on a software package she has sold, her paralegal knowledge and skills are apparent to the powers-that-be, and she may end up with new freelance work. CONCLUSION To all those traditional paralegals who envision freelance paralegals jumping out of bed, strolling into the kitchen to pour their coffee and promptly sitting down in a home office … guess what? It can and does happen! But don’t get any ideas that you can’t draft a complex legal document in ‘jammies as well you can in a navy blue suit and pearls … you just can’t turn on the monitor camera when you’re researching on-line. All kidding aside, contract paralegal work is very rewarding and a challenging career path for experienced paralegals. Whether in a rural town or urban metropolis, the business of building and owning a paralegal company is double the work. The deadlines and emergencies can be greater than in traditional work, and we eat a lot of costs, but the benefits are great! This article originally appeared in the National Paralegal Reporter, a publication of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations Inc. and is reprinted with permission of the author and NFPA. Susan D. Daugherty has been a litigation paralegal for 17 years, the last eight providing contract services to New Jersey and Pennsylvania attorneys as president of Paralegal Enterprises Inc. in Vineland, NJ. The 1999 recipient of the Robie Award, Daugherty served as president of both NFPA and South Jersey Paralegal Association.

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