Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Contract or freelance? Choosing your identity is essential to job satisfaction

In 2005, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a job satisfaction rating of freelancers is dramatically higher than that of temporary workers. In February 2005, there were 10.3 million independent contractors. The majority of independent contractors (82 percent) preferred their work arrangement to a traditional job. In dramatic contrast, on-call workers and temporary help agency workers had only 46 and 32 percent, respectively, preferring their work arrangements. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Alternative employment arrangements and worker preferences,” originally published August 4, 2005.

The term “contract attorney” has often been used to identify any lawyer who works on a non-employee-for-the-law-firm basis. There are a large number of staffing agencies that serve as the “employer” and provide lawyers for law firms to use on a temporary basis. The same happens with paralegals, legal assistants and secretaries, interpreters and court reporters, though the appellation of “contract” is not usually applied to these other professionals.

Working for a staffing agency, however, is not the same as working as a freelancer, and confusion of the terms undermines the perception of legal freelancing as a whole.

Contract attorneys are treated as second-class citizens both in terms of law firm atmosphere, mentoring opportunities, and the perception of their resume for future jobs. The perception is that these attorneys were unable to get their first job option (assumed to be an associate position at a prestigious large law firm) and that working contract was their second choice. It is a perception of inadequacy and failure right out of the starting gate, hardly a selling point for ones competency as a legal professional.

Unfortunately, this perception is not far off of reality in most instances. Contract attorneys often work the same long hours as young associates, work on repetitious and boring work, their brains on not challenged with new problem-solving opportunities, are often denied overtime pay (because they are lawyers), have neither stability of income (projects come and go and are often cancelled on short notice), benefits, nor the promise of eventual partnership. Not only that, but many contract attorneys continue to seek a “regular” job with the same prestigious law firms that they were unable to get into initially.

The key difference between contract attorney (or paralegal, etc.) and a freelancer by definition is the identity of employer. A staffing agency simply does not have the incentive to provide a contract legal professional with any benefit other than sufficient pay to get them to come to work every day that they want them to come to work. A freelancer does not wait for a phone call and then jumps when asked to work here or there on some boring project or another that will simply pay the bills. Freelancers are employed by the only people that has the freelancer’s best interests at heart – themselves.


Anonymous said...

What is the typical hourly rate for a freelance attorney doing empployment and consulting service contract review and negotiation?

Melody Kramer said...

There is an ongoing discussion about billing rates for freelancers at the NAFLP Members Forum. Login at

Melody Kramer