Thursday, February 7, 2008

"Almost Impossible" Means It Is Possible for Contract Lawyers to Organize

I read with interest a February 5, 2008 post by Joe Miller of entitled “5 Reasons Why Forming a Contract Attorney Union Is Almost Impossible.” I’m so glad he said “almost.” He is optimistic that something can be done, and I want to respond to his legitimate points.

1. Time Consuming. It is true that a large amount of energy is required to start a new organization, developing plans of action, mailing lists, etc. The National Association of Freelance Legal Professionals is the result of years of planning and preparation, and much remains to be done. However, Amanda and I are keenly aware of the need and desire for such an organization and are committed to its success.

2. Weak Economy. Plenty of lawyers and paralegals are doing contract work without a union. They don’t need a “labor union” in the traditional sense, but rather need assistance in taking control of their own career and learning how to be financially successful and independent. No more need to be held captive by BigLaw or a temp agency. As a freelancer, you work for yourself, govern your own hours and working conditions, and determine your own pay.

3. Contract Lawyers are too Decentralized. That is a true statement now, but won’t be for long. NAFLP is designed to bring in freelancers from all over the country to share their experience and expertise with each other. Contract lawyers and paralegals need a central support system that is not bound to any particular project.

Freelancers are about to have another source of centralization too – FreelanceLaw, Inc. FreelanceLaw, a sponsoring organization of NAFLP, is beginning beta-testing of a web-based legal outsourcing network that is specially designed and tailored to the legal profession. Law firms will be able to locate and retain qualified freelancers online, and payments will be processed through FreelanceLaw so that freelancers can receive direct deposit paychecks bi-monthly for their work. Freelancers determine what work they want to do and determine their own pay rate. Queries from potential beta-testers can be directed to

4. Most Contract Lawyers Don’t Plan to Be Doing It for Long. Contract lawyers don’t plan to be contracting for long primarily because (a) they or their peers view contracting as being a lesser lawyer; or (b) the experience is not rewarding. Neither NAFLP nor FreelanceLaw preclude members from exploring their options. They are not bound to be contract lawyers forever, however, we can provide significant expertise, insight, and information to assist along the way.

5. Who’s the Employer? This question demonstrates why a traditional union for contract attorneys would not work. The very nature of freelancing is that the freelancer is their own boss. Let us dispense with the myth that lawyers or paralegals must have an “employer.” They don’t. During my first year of law school our career placement head made a statement that I will never forget – “when you are a lawyer, you don’t need a job, you only need a client.” Truer words were never spoken. Whether that “client” is another lawyer or the actual client, you do not need to receive W-2s from a law firm to have a successful legal career.

Mr. Miller is 100% correct. A traditional union structure is not the way to organize contract attorneys. However, a voluntary association created to assist, inform, and educate freelancers and law firms alike, is a workable model.


JDWired said...

This is such a great post. I am glad to see some contract lawyers who are done with all of the self-loathing and are actually committed to taking responsibility for their own careers.

Stephanie Woods Miller said...

I think that it is not only possible for contract lawyers to organize but essential that we do so. Contract work provides lawyers especially those seeking more control over their lives and schedules to practice their trade outside the contraints of a traditional law firm. However, what you loose is the mentorship, a scale by which to measure not only your skills but very importantly your compensation. I also think that it is important to maintain contact with other professionals who have your unique concerns. I believe that there is also the misconception that if you don't practice law in the traditional sense that you are not a "real" lawyer.

Gabe Acevedo said...

The term that has to be defined here is "organized." Alot of people think this means forming a union, and in my opinion that is an over-simplified way of looking at things. I would strongly encourage contract attorneys to form local associations within their jurisdictions if for any other reason to be recognized and have a voice in their bar organizations.

Melody Kramer said...

Gabe may have a point. Creating a freelancer "union" is problematic on a number of levels. Unions have a certain structure and purpose that are not transferrable. Organizing for any group of people should be within a structure that is helpful and beneficial to them specifically. NAFLP was created, in part, to begin the process of talking together to determine what the greatest needs are and how they can be met collectively.