The Pros and Cons of Contract Lawyering (Part 1 of 2)

By Aaron J. Cronan, YLS Futures Committee member.

The legal profession is nothing if not tied to tradition. The very principle of stare decisis is based upon adherence to the decisions that have come before. We tend to resist new technology (reference the firms that did not have computers for associates as late as 2002), and we revel in the use of dead languages like Latin and Law French. It is not surprising that the legal community as a whole is a bit resistant to a new type of legal practice gaining momentum: the contract lawyer.

The traditional career path for a lawyer has primarily been binary: an associate position at a firm with the aim of making partner, or striking out on your own with your name on top of the letterhead. But the third option of working on contract has steadily gained viability over the past 20 years. What was once uniformly viewed as the domain of attorney-mothers who needed flexibility is now on the cusp of becoming a tempting business model for practitioners and firms alike.

Portland has a core of pioneer contract attorneys who have garnered a new level of respect for this new model and have proven that one can make a respectable living working on contract. A handful of these attorneys were interviewed about their own experiences and thoughts on contract lawyering. Most initially worked in law firms, some were also partners. Although each of them came to working as a contract attorney through various paths, they all had very similar thoughts about the pros and cons of this form of practice.

This article is in two parts in the interest of space. The second half will follow in next month's newsletter.

Pro

Flexibility: The number one pro of contract work is flexibility; you choose where, when and how you work. There is no expectation to stay at the office until the partner goes home, nor is there pressure to work on the weekends unless that's when you prefer to work or the project calls for it.

Con

Lack of Security: The flipside of flexibility is the risk that there may be no work next week. Without the safety net of a salary, cash flow may be a little more variable than some are prepared to handle. Another major consideration for anyone self-employed is health insurance. Shouldering the cost of insuring a family may increase the risk of leaving the firm. However, firms are just as susceptible to market changes as any other industry. As we have seen in just the last 10 years, a traditional firm job may not carry more security in the long term.

Pro

Projects v. Case Load: Most contract work is project based and contributes pieces to the greater matter with little to no ongoing responsibility for the ultimate outcome. The stress level is significantly lower than carrying your own case load from start to finish. This project format may suit some attorneys very well.

Stay tuned for the riveting conclusion next month in part 2.