[Interview] Reinventing Legal Practice with Freelance Attorneys


LegalBee CEO and Founder, Shelley Whitehead, spoke with Ari Kaplan of Reinventing Professionals. They discussed the genesis of LegalBee, the rise of freelance attorneys, how a freelance network can enhance how solo practitioners and small law firms service their clients, and the future of this sector, among other issues. To listen to the interview, click here. Read the transcript of the interview below:

Ari Kaplan: This is Ari Kaplan and I’m speaking today with Shelley Whitehead, the founder and CEO of LegalBee, a network of freelance attorneys that provides temporary legal services for solo practitioners and small law firms. Hi Shelley, how are you?

Shelley Whitehead: I’m doing great, Ari. Thanks for having me.

Ari Kaplan:  Oh I’m so happy to chat with you. So tell us about the genesis of LegalBee.

Shelley Whitehead: Well let me start on how I kind of got to LegalBee. I began my legal career actually working at a mid-sized firm in New Orleans representing corporate clients in employment law, premises liability and insurance defense matters. When I left the firm, I started doing work for quite a few solo practitioners and I noticed that there was a real need for these solos to have access to attorneys that could do quality work for them on an as-needed basis. So I formed my first freelance practice called Whitehead Freelance Law and started contracting out my services to these solos and small firms. I loved it because it was flexible, I was able to work less hours, work on the type of projects that I wanted to, and at the same time making even more money than I did when I was at the firm. 

So I moved to the Chicagoland area, where I'm originally from, to take care of my mom when she got sick. Because of the nature of the work and because it is so flexible, it was relatively easy for me to just pick up the practice and move to Chicago and start working with other attorneys here. It also afforded me the opportunity to still remain connected to the legal industry while I was taking my mom back and forth to doctors’ appointments. Something I likely wouldn't have been able to do had I worked at a firm or for a company.

So as I was working for these attorneys here in Chicago, I started getting more and more requests for areas of law that weren’t my specialty. They were things that I could do, but not necessarily areas of law that I enjoy practicing. So I started thinking that I sure wish I had some other people I could give this work to, and that was where the idea for LegalBee was born. Since I knew I’d be bringing additional people on I wanted an entire new look and feel for the business and ended up changing the name.

Basically how it works is that when a solo or small firm has a matter that they need assistance with, they just call us and we’re able to match them with an attorney who can meet that need. And so what happens is that attorney and the hiring firm they get together and discuss the parameters of the project. I stay completely out of it. Once the engagement is over, the attorney sends me their timesheet, I can invoice the hiring attorney and then the hiring attorney pays me and then I pay the actual freelance attorney.  I have a hive that consists of, I like to call the group of attorneys that work for me a “hive”, and so they consist of attorneys who have typically 10 or more years of experience from various practice areas and they all have different motivations for wanting to freelance. So I have some attorney moms who left the practice to raise their kids and want to ease back into the practice without necessarily going to a firm. We also have more seasoned attorneys who no longer want the hassle of managing their own practices and just want to kind of leisurely practice law.

I call my collective group of attorneys a “hive”, not just because it's cute and catchy, but because I want them to feel connected to the business and like they are a part of it and not just sitting around waiting for me to call them for a project. Because sometimes when you're not at a firm or company it can be very isolating and kind of lonely. So actually in a couple of weeks we'll be having a meet and greet where just a group of us will be getting together to have some fun, food and fellowship. And as we continue to get together, I’m thinking probably each quarter, I'll be offering professional development opportunities so that they are getting more than just additional work from LegalBee, but they are also elevating themselves as attorneys as well.

Ari Kaplan: Are they all based in the Chicago area?

Shelley Whitehead: Yes, currently. They are all based here in Chicago. A few of them are licensed in other states as well. Eventually I would like LegalBee to become national, but right now it is solely in Chicago.

Ari Kaplan: What services do you provide for solo practitioners and small firms?

Shelley Whitehead:  We offer services to assist attorneys who either do litigation or transactional types of work. Our attorneys are able to handle just about every stage of the litigation process from handling court appearances, to drafting pleadings and motions, or assisting with discovery. We can also help with the taking and preparation of depositions. Also with trial prep and doing appellate work after the trial. And also even before you even decide to get a case, we can help the attorney assess the viability of a claim, so if a potential client comes with an issue, we can research and offer opinions about whether you should even bother taking the case. 

On the transactional side, we also do real estate closings, commercial drafting, contract review, business formation and things of that nature

So hiring a freelance attorney for a solo or small firm is really incredibly beneficial because you're getting an actual attorney who can offer a fresh perspective on the case. Not only can they do the work effectively, but because they have been actually practicing and they’re experienced, they are able to offer alternative strategies or see issues that you may have missed. 

Ari Kaplan: How can attorneys use freelance lawyers for their business development?

Shelley Whitehead: Well actually sometimes, I guess a stigma with some solos and small firms is that they are too small and don't have the bandwidth to handle like a large matter. And so when pitching for large matters, they can simply tell the potential client that they have access to this pool of qualified freelance attorneys that can assist them with the performance of the work.

I’ll give you a real-life example, so during the BP oil spill crisis a few years ago, BP contracted with a relatively small law firm in Louisiana to staff the claims centers with attorneys to assist with the claimants. And when I say small, I’m talking about, they probably didn’t even have 15 attorneys at this particular firm. Even though BP is like a huge client, you know all of the attorneys they are not just able to quit all of their other cases and just start working on BP and staff these centers, so they were able to bring in freelance attorneys such as myself to step in and work in those claim centers. So that's just an example of how a firm was able to really utilize freelance attorneys to get a really large matter and client and being able to satisfy such a large demand.

Ari Kaplan: Other than that, in what instances would an attorney need to hire a freelancer?

Shelley Whitehead: Well for one, LegalBee seeks to help the overworked attorney. So attorneys that have multiple matters occurring at once, such as perhaps prepping for a trial in one case, but you really need to respond to a motion for summary judgment in another. We can help take some of that off of your plate. Also, there are also times you just simply want to go on vacation or go to a family event, but you have a scheduling conflict. For instance, a couple of months ago I had a client whose daughter was graduating kindergarten and she wanted to attend but had to be in court that day. So one of our attorneys was able to fill in for her in court so she was able to attend her daughter’s graduation.

And also, there may be a time when you think you're at the point where you need to hire a full time associate, but you aren't quite sure if that's the right move for your practice.  So bringing in a freelance attorney is a great way to gauge if you really have the need to hire someone full-time. And lastly, I’ll just mention that a freelance attorney can fill in hiring gaps. An attorney at your firm may be out for an extended period of time, say for maternity leave, and instead of the rest of the attorneys in the firm having to pick up the slack, a freelance attorney can be brought in to fill in until that attorney returns.

 Ari Kaplan: Where do you see freelance lawyering headed?

Shelley Whitehead: Well the legal industry is usually notoriously slow to adapt to changes, but however it is slowly embracing the notion of freelancing and outsourcing and not just with lawyers, but with paralegals and support staff all around. In my opinion, it’s just going to continue to grow and evolve because it is essentially a win, win, win for all parties involved. I say that because it's a win for the freelance attorney because they get to still practice law, they have the flexibility to be there for their families and they also get to work less hours. It's a win for the hiring attorney because they are getting quality assistance from an experienced attorney without the added overhead of a full-time associate. And lastly it's a win for the client because the freelance relationship saves them money in the long run, their matter isn't falling through the cracks because the actual attorney that they hired is too busy doing other things and at the end of the day they receive a quality work product. So everyone wins at the end of the day. Freelancing is really where the legal profession is likely going to be headed. And you’ll probably be seeing a lot of that in the future.

Ari Kaplan: This is Ari Kaplan speaking with Shelley Whitehead, the founder and CEO of LegalBee, a network of freelance attorneys that provides temporary legal services for solo practitioners and small law firms. Shelley, thanks so much! It’s been great talking to you!

Shelley Whitehead: Thanks Ari! Thanks for having me!