Last month I suggested five tips for using inside counsel freelancers. Now it’s time to flip the coin and offer advice for inside counsel who wish to freelance. If you are really looking for traditional employment, then this is the wrong column for you. You may wish to take a gap-filling role via a staffing firm as a bridge during your search. What follows is advice for folks who want to freelance long-term. The three key topics here are rainmaking, pricing and housekeeping.
Start by embracing my favorite quote, from Thomas Edison: “There are no rules here; we’re trying to accomplish something.”
Via trial and error, you will discover the best ways to generate business. When it comes to rainmaking, every individual has a different style, so you must find yours. Start reading books on best practices for selling professional services. This topic cannot be covered within the confines of a column. What I can tell you is that landing freelance assignments requires continual activity. Challenge yourself to tackle at least one business development task per day, and don’t let other people discourage you.
Successful freelancers understand that their highest priority is selling themselves. So even while you are engaged on a freelance project, make time to build your network, speak at conferences, send articles out to contacts and meet prospective clients.
Taking freelance work via law firms, recruiting firms or other third-party sources is a great way to get projects. But if you wish to freelance full time, don’t be lulled into relying on third parties exclusively. Even if you have the kind of pedigree and corporate presence that yields lots of attention from third-party talent providers, you will inevitably run into periods of down time between projects. On the other hand, if you are in an economic situation where you can handle some down time, or even prefer it, then using third parties to handle rainmaking for you may indeed be an option.
Understand the playing field. Law departments tend to accept pricing levels that I categorize as follows:
- Top-of-market law firm brand or specialization rates
- Value-based or middle-market law firm rates
- In-house comparable rates
- Contract attorney rates
Each of these categories is considered the appropriate choice depending on the nature and sensitivity of the need, along with factors such as project duration and location (i.e. is this fully outsourced work, or an on-site but off-payroll assignment?). Freelancers who attempt to price in Category 1 are kidding themselves, unless they fall into the rarified air of offering a unique personal brand name or political connections. Category 4 is the nightmare world of low-paying document-review work and is more appropriate for junior-level folks who need law-related experience and a paycheck.
Categories 2 and 3 lead us to the right pricing discussion for experienced inside counsel with solid credentials who wish to freelance. The actual numbers within these categories are broad and overlap in spots, but I purposely use two separate labels as a structure for guiding your thought process on pricing. If your role for a given client is sporadic, off-site and subject-matter specific, then price-compare yourself to middle-market law firm rates and offer a modest bargain to that. Don’t lowball yourself on price, but make it attractive for a client to use you versus the easier solution of simply picking up the phone and calling a law firm. If your role is ongoing and perhaps even on-site, then understand the internal salary structure within the company’s law department and price yourself in line with what a mid-level attorney at your client is earning. You don’t really need to discount below that because your value proposition lies largely in the flexibility of adding talent without the need to add headcount.
Complicating this issue is the growing affinity for fixed pricing versus hourly pricing. Law departments crave budget certainty when possible, so offer this option. I’m tempted to suggest specific numbers, but I think there are too many variables, including geography and seniority levels, for that to be helpful. Instead, I’m opening my inbox to you. If you would like to correspond and get my opinion on the right freelance price range for you, I promise to get back to everyone who inquires (see below for my contact information).
Don’t let malpractice insurance become a hurdle that keeps you from freelancing. If you are going to go to court on behalf of a client, then yes, you need a policy. Even if you are just handling general commercial nonlitigation work, the best practice is to secure insurance (mainly because your client expects it). But there are very reasonably priced individual policies out there. Tip: If you are not going to handle securities work, write opinion letters or engage in other areas that insurers consider higher-risk, then lower your premium by embracing policy exclusions for coverage you don’t need.
You don’t need a fancy street address, but a professional-looking e-letterhead and email address is advisable. A website, business cards, etc., are all worth doing, but please understand that most would-be freelancers spend too much time on such back-office tasks and fool themselves into thinking this is business-development activity.
I encourage you to focus on landing some initial freelance work via your contact network as the first order of business and then use revenue from that work to hire a web-savvy friend or a marketing professional to help build your online presence. I am a huge fan and supporter of the freelancer, so please don’t hesitate to reach out with specific questions or for a little more guidance. Stay positive, don’t take rejection personally and remember to celebrate your victories.