Even if you are not familiar with the term, you have probably encountered more than one example of the gig economy today. Whether you are hopping in a rideshare to get to class, ordering food or groceries for delivery, or finding someone to edit your ex out of your photos (yes, that is really a service someone provides!), technology has enabled a rapid expansion in task-based, freelance or “gig” work. Many people work more than one gig economy job to make ends meet, and lawyers are no exception.
There have always been lawyers who do work on a freelance basis (and, of course, solo practitioners running their own firms). What has changed in the past decade is the rise of online platforms for legal gigs. Today, a lawyer anywhere in the world can dial into a platform like Hire an Esquire or LawClerk.Legal and seek on-demand, project-based legal services.
Why is it Worth Considering?
Is becoming a gig economy lawyer something you should consider? Like everything else in the law, the answer is, it depends!
If you’re looking for an alternative to traditional employment or solo practice, freelancing can be an amazing opportunity. Overhead is low because you can work from pretty much anywhere (I’ll admit I am typing this article from a not-to-be named coffee shop – there’s no shame in the freelance hustle!). Whether you work from a coffee shop, your couch, a co-working space, or, more likely, some combination of all three, you won’t face hefty rent, utilities and other costs associated with a physical office space.
You also set your own schedule and can adjust your workload to fit your lifestyle. That means if you want to go to Europe for a month, you can either wind down your projects and take off, or simply work from abroad. If you’ve ever seen House Hunters: International, you’re probably familiar with the concept of moving abroad to find a low cost of living while pursuing remote work. (As a freelancer myself, I can attest that I have definitely considered it!)
A former colleague of mine was actually an Olympic athlete, and needed frequent time off during the season her sport was in session and during Olympic trials. Freelancing can be a perfect choice for someone whose lifestyle doesn’t fit with a traditional legal career. This includes parents of small children, military spouses, and people who simply need to supplement their income and have time for small side projects.
Freelancing can also be a stepping stone to other opportunities; while many freelancers simply do one-off jobs from online platforms, if your work is high quality and reliable, you can build a stable of regular clients, and get steady (and more predictable) work. It can also expand your network and expose you to new areas of law, gaining experience and connections that can help you transition into a new specialty or a new location.
What’s the Downside?
It sounds great, so what’s the catch? Well, there are a few, the largest of which is that contract work generally doesn’t pay as well as traditional legal work. While it’s (usually) more lucrative than driving an Uber, most freelance gigs pay a price per project, regardless of how long you take to complete it. That means if you’re doing the job right (and you should be treating this as seriously as work you would do directly for a client), your hourly rate may not be what you’d expect. Freelancers can be pressured to work more quickly than is reasonable, and therefore produce less than stellar work (thus perpetuating an unwillingness by the clients to pay a reasonable rate). Once you are an established freelancer, you can begin to negotiate higher rates with individual clients, but many of the platforms don’t really allow for negotiation (and there’s almost always going to be someone to take the job at the rate offered).
This is also crucial: you can’t forget that you’re a lawyer! Even though you are working for another attorney, you still need to be cognizant of your ethical responsibilities and extremely vigilant to ensure you’re not running afoul of the rules governing you. This may include undertaking your own research into the regulations of the state bar where the freelance work is located, speaking with your insurance agent to ensure appropriate coverage for work, and avoiding work that could place you at ethical or legal risk. Unlike a traditional legal job, you won’t have a boss, an HR department, or anyone else checking your work – you’re ultimately responsible for ensuring you are in compliance.
Unless your clients give you access to their resources, you’ll also be responsible for procuring all the resources you need. Sadly, free access to legal databases ends after law school, so you’ll have to either purchase your own, or use resources available to you through your bar association or other memberships to do any necessary research. Like all gig economy workers, if freelancing is your only job, you’ll have to find your own health insurance, pay your bar dues, and keep track of your own taxes and other responsibilities as a business owner. All of these will eat into both your time and your profits.
Freelancing can be an attractive option in some situations, but it is still a job, so it’s important to take into account all of the potential costs and risks before you decide if it’s worth it. Freelancing would also be hard to build into a full-time career without any experience, so I would not count on hopping directly onto the freelancing train straight out of law school.
While the job hunt can be daunting, there are lots of career resources out there to help guide you. Despite all the potential pitfalls, there can be some amazing benefits to working the gig economy as a lawyer (such as the latte I’m currently enjoying!). Keep it in your back pocket as you move forward in planning your career.
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