The Busy Lawyer's Guide to Hiring Freelance Attorneys

As a busy solo attorney, Marie was forced to wear many different hats in her practice. She was the marketing department, sales, human resources and not to mention a practicing lawyer. Furthermore, when scheduling conflicts arose or she had an overflow of work, she had to miss out on family functions and work tirelessly day and night to get everything done. Marie simply didn’t have the luxury of a firm full of associates at her disposal to help lighten the load or ensure that matters didn’t slip through the cracks. 

Does Marie’s situation sound eerily similar to yours? What can you and Marie do about it?

The answer is simple. Hire a freelance attorney.

What is a Freelance Attorney?

A freelance attorney is simply an experienced attorney who works with other attorneys on certain projects for a one-time or on-going basis. Think of them as an on-call associate that you use whenever you’re in a pinch. They are independent contractors, not employees of your firm, and mostly work remotely. They typically handle substantive work on a project basis such as covering hearings, depositions, research and writing, drafting briefs, motions, other pleadings and discovery. Their work product is used by you, the hiring attorney, as part of your representation for your direct client. Most freelance attorneys have at least 5 years of experience practicing law. 

When to Consider Hiring a Freelance Attorney?

Freelance attorneys are most useful when you need extra hands, but don’t have enough work to hire an associate full-time. They can step in and handle any aspect of your expanding workload without handholding or training, fill a gap when a member of your firm is on leave, or cover matters for you while you take a much-needed vacation. Hiring a freelance attorney can be a lifesaver when you have multiple matters coming up at the same time or you’re turning away new cases and losing out on revenue. 

What are the Benefits of Hiring a Freelance Attorney?

Hiring a freelance attorney can give you the added hands to work on your current cases so you can take on additional clients or work on other billable projects. The client is able to get better service and you regain control of your caseload, reducing the risk of malpractice claims. In addition, ABA Formal Opinion 00-420 (November 29, 2000) states that a hiring attorney can add a reasonable “surcharge” to the amount it pays for freelance legal work, as long as it is billed to the client as legal services, not expenses.  Lastly, since a freelance attorney is experienced in the practice of law, they can help point out issues you may have missed or introduce an alternative method to solving a problem.

Do I Need to Supervise the Freelance Attorney?

The American Bar Association states that a lawyer may outsource legal support services provided the lawyer remains ultimately responsible for rendering competent legal services to the client under Model Rule 1.1. ABA Formal Opinion 08-451. Model Rule 1.1 provides that “A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”  So although you are hiring a freelance attorney to help manage your caseload, you still have a duty to your client to independently judge the quality and competency of the work product of the freelance attorney. This is why it is so important to hire only freelance attorneys that have the appropriate experience and are skilled in the areas that you need assistance in. 

Do I Need Client Consent before Hiring a Freelance Attorney?

ABA Opinion 88-356 (1988) provides that a client must be advised and give consent that a temporary lawyer will work on the client's matter if the temporary lawyer is working without the close supervision of a lawyer associated with a firm. If the temporary lawyer is working under the direct supervision of a lawyer associated with the firm, no client consent is needed. However, Illinois requires client consent regardless of the level of supervision. Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.2(c). This can be accomplished with a clause in the client’s initial engagement letter, notifying them that you may hire freelance attorneys to perform work in the case. The fee arrangement between you and the freelance attorney does not require client consent unless it involves a direct division of the actual fee paid by the client or is being billed to the client as an expense. In re Marriage of Zeimann, 214 Ill.App.3d 988, 574 N.E.2d 767, 158 Ill.Dec. 654 (1991); ABA Opinion 88-356 (1988). 

How is Malpractice Insurance Handled?

Some freelance attorneys carry their own malpractice insurance. For those that don’t, most insurance policies allow the hiring firm to add a freelance attorney to their policy for either no fee or a nominal fee. Furthermore, most insurance policies state anyone doing work for the firm is automatically covered. Be sure to check with your insurance carrier to get the specifics on your policy.

Hiring a freelance attorney is a great low-cost, low-commitment solution to handling the ebbs and flows of your practice. When there is a high volume of work, they’re available to help you navigate through it. When business is slow, you’re not paying them to sit there and twiddle their thumbs.  So next time you’re in a bind, give a freelance attorney a call.