Freelance Paralegals: Trade Secrets of Success
The paralegal profession emerged in the 1960s. As in any profession, shortly thereafter, paralegals began to pursue freelance work for a variety of reasons. The most frequently discussed benefit was flexible hours. In the 21st century, freelance paralegal work has taken shape in many successful formats:
While these opportunities may meet a paralegal's desire for paralegal work, they also carry certain added responsibilities:
Further, performing freelance paralegal work requires compliance with certain tax laws, business laws and municipal, state or federal regulations. Often, the administrative duties of freelance work nearly equal the hours spent performing legal work.
Defining Freelance Paralegals
A freelance paralegal, also known as a contract paralegal, is no different than a traditional paralegal except to the extent that s/he is not employed by an attorney in a traditional setting such as a law firm, governmental entity or corporation. Rather, a freelance paralegal is retained on an as-needed basis by many supervising attorneys in these settings. Freelance paralegals are educated and qualified to perform paralegal work just the same as traditionally-employed paralegals.
Difference between Freelance and Independent
An independent paralegal, also referred to as a forms practitioner or document preparer, usually performs work without attorney supervision. Often, this work is not considered legally substantive, but clerical in nature. Work is performed directly for, and delivered directly to the consumer, or member of the public. This is completely different than work performed by freelance or contract paralegals.
Freelance paralegals perform paralegal work with attorney supervision, unless otherwise permitted by statute, administrative regulation or court rule. See http://www.paralegals.org/Development/Roles/allow.html for an extensive list of these exceptions. The paralegal work is legally substantive, delegated and reviewed by the supervising attorney, delivered to the attorney and would be accomplished by an attorney, but for the paralegal performing the work.
Prohibition on UPL
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) does not support the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). NFPA's Model Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility Guidelines for Enforcement, at EC-1.8(a), states:
Neither traditional nor freelance paralegals may engage in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL). Prohibitions include:
While no statistics exist to support or reject this premise, freelance paralegals may be more likely to be targeted by authorities alleging UPL. Consequently, they must be careful to document assignments received from attorneys and avoid giving even an appearance of engaging in UPL.
Other Ethical Considerations of Performing Freelance Work
Freelance paralegals have the same ethical obligations as traditional paralegals. Freelancers should take careful steps, not only to comply with those obligations, but also to be able to demonstrate how they complied.
Extremely important in performing freelance work is maintaining a thorough conflict-of-interest searching mechanism. Traditionally-employed paralegals rarely need to think of the process used by their employers to verify that no conflicts of interest exist. However, freelancers must assume this responsibility and be able to document that a search was conducted on each new matter should a question ever arise.
Properly identifying yourself as a paralegal also is more critical to freelance paralegals. Too often, terms like certified are used loosely. Identifying yourself correctly is not only necessary, but also ethically responsible. If you receive a degree from an institution, you are certificated by 'x'. If you successfully pass the NFPA PACE exam, you are a PACE Registered Paralegal. If you pass the NALA CLA exam, you are a NALA Certified Legal Assistant. If you successfully qualify for a state court's paralegal credential, then include the proper title to indicate by what entity you are certified, licensed, registered or regulated.
Several NFPA publications available at www.paralegals.org under Profession Development will assist with understanding ethical obligations:
Background of Freelance Paralegals
A frequent inquiry on paralegal list serves and at association meetings is How do I become a freelance paralegal? The most important consideration to becoming a freelance paralegal is the person's background - education, experience, prior career, business savvy, financial stability and independence, time management skills ... and the list continues. Start by assessing whether you are better suited to be an entrepreneur or an employee. Determine whether you are ready to run all aspects of a business completely by yourself.
Retaining attorneys are seeking mature individuals as well as a strong paralegal background in freelance paralegals. Therefore, the most important qualification is traditional paralegal experience. There is no magic number of prior years experience. However, most successful freelance paralegals agree that possessing a minimum of five years traditional experience is recommended before venturing out on your own. This may be contrary to some misleading TV advertisements and even differ from the opinion of some paralegal educators. However, even the highest quality paralegal education programs do not prepare students to begin freelancing immediately upon graduation. Acquiring practical experience, developing resources and networks and building professional confidence and competence are just as crucial to success as book-learning.
Successful freelancers emphasize the importance of possessing solid office management skills as well. Many freelance paralegals have benefitted from possessing a business administration and/or accounting background or undergraduate degree. These skills are a necessary function of owning a business, keeping records, filing taxes, meeting state and federal corporate requirements and such.
Legal and Financial Considerations
Once you make the decision to venture out on your own, the next step is to define your objectives and carefully plan how to achieve them. Experienced freelancers strongly recommend involving an accountant and/or lawyer at this stage.
Setting Up the Office
Once you've established the business, you need to set up your office. Decisions may be based on: your geographic location; plans for future expansion; desiring an initial level of informality; and/or plans to perform all work in the retaining attorneys' offices. While your choices may be modified as your venture progresses, they still warrant careful attention at the outset.
If you decide to go the formal route, you also might involve a professional marketing or advertising firm, printer, website designer, realtor, insurance agency, etc. Some acquisitions may be leased if purchase capital is not available. Not all of these are mandatory, but each can be considered.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I charge for my paralegal services?
There is no one answer; in fact, sharing such information may violate antitrust law. Establishing competitive rates for services is usually based on the market in a geographical area; the paralegal's education and experience that qualify him/her to provide the services; complexity of the task; and the level of expertise required in a particular legal specialty. Some costs are billed separately, e.g., charges for postage, copies, phone, facsimile and on-line legal research.
How do freelancers advertise for attorney-clients?
Since services are provided to attorneys, except where otherwise permitted, advertising efforts should be geared for the legal community. Options include print advertising in lawyer and paralegal publications, newsletters and directories; participation on legal list serves; obtaining exhibit booth space at legal conventions, seminars and trade shows; flyers distributed in courthouses, law schools and financial entities (banks, mortgage companies, accountants); and developing a website. However, the best advertising is word of mouth; a good referral from an attorney for whom you did paralegal work results in the best advertising without spending a dime.
How do freelancers remain successful?
Deciding to become a freelance paralegal is not difficult. However, remaining successful can be challenging. Freelancers may wonder from where the next dollar will come, have difficulties with collecting fees earned or worry about getting through a seasonal or interim break in business. It takes constant effort to ensure that the business and your enthusiasm never stagnate.
Successful freelancers agree that one of the most important choices they made is remaining active in their paralegal association. Visit www.paralegals.org under Membership to locate your local association; local membership entitles you to NFPA membership. Membership affords valuable benefits, contacts, resources, networks and professional exposure that are critical to success.
Resources for Information
NFPA Freelance Chat, see www.paralegals.org under Networking - paralegals from across the nation meet in a live Internet Relay Chat for an hour-long monthly discussion of issues related to freelance paralegal work - available to NFPA members only.
NFPA Freelance List Serve, see www.paralegals.org under Networking - paralegals from across the nation participate in a list serve discussion of issues related to freelance paralegal work - available to NFPA members only.
Numerous articles written by freelance paralegal colleagues in the NFPA National Paralegal Reporter, available at www.paralegals.org/Reporter.
Paralegal Services: How to Manage Your Own Firm, Heath, C., 2000, awarded NFPA Seal of Excellence, 2000, www.rimrockpublishing.com, ISBN No. 0-615-11686-8.
Good luck and best wishes for success!
NFPA Mission Statement
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. ("NFPA") is a non-profit, professional organization comprising state and local paralegal associations throughout the United States and Canada. NFPA affirms the paralegal profession as an independent, self-directed profession which supports increased quality, efficiency and accessibility in the delivery of legal services. NFPA promotes the growth, development and recognition of the profession as an integral partner in the delivery of legal services. As adopted March 1987.
Copyright © 2002, National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. All rights reserved.