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

This discussion about the pros and cons of contract lawyering continues from last month's article. We pick right up from where we left off.

Pro/Con - Income: 

The big pro of contract work is the potential to make more per hour of actual work than you can make in a firm. Add the benefits of self-employment expense write-offs and your hourly net rate can be a big improvement over a firm job. The con is that maintaining the steady flow of work to reach a gross income level equal to a firm job can be challenging. Your income is directly tied to the hours you work. Sometimes it can feel like printing money, while other times it can be a little lean. Skill at bringing in work is the main obstacle to the level of financial success. If you are not a self starter, contract work may not suit you.

Con

Stigma: Maybe "stigma" is a little too strong, but each person interviewed confirmed there is a persistent sense among firm attorneys that contract attorneys are somehow subpar. The negative perception can be quickly dispelled by exceptional work product and professionalism. The truth is, contract attorneys may not get the prestige of working at a big name firm, but they also have significant control over their personal lives. Firms may also have an incentive for perpetuating such negative opinions. Many contract attorneys only needed to do a little math before realizing the grass was greener outside the firm. For some, the emotional costs like prestige and stigma may balance the equation in favor of the firm path. Those attorneys more interested in function over form may find the stigma surmountable.

Pro

Diverse Practice: Because of the potentially diverse sources of work, contract attorneys may be exposed to a wide range of matters. From complex litigation to transferring mineral rights, some practice areas are better suited to utilize contract attorneys, but there is no hard, fast rule that will block working in any single area.

Con

Isolation/Lack of Mentorship: Unlike a firm job, there is no partner down the hall to ask questions or take you under their wing. The default structure for a contract attorney is working by yourself. You must actively network and seek out peers to develop a professional support system and to develop new business. Professional organizations like the Multnomah Bar Association and the Oregon Women Lawyers (OWLS, also has male members) can be great assets for countering isolation. It may take a little more effort than walking down the hall, but there is support to be found.

This list of pros and cons barely scratches the surface of the issues contract lawyering raises. The motivations for practicing law as a contract attorney are varied and may impact how an attorney enters the market. The initial interviews suggest sociological factors of gender and generation may be framing the decision to make the jump to contract work. An attorney's experience level will greatly shape the type of work other attorneys will offer him or her. Finally, there are greater market factors to explore like the impact of contract work on viability of full time positions and the economic drivers for utilizing contract attorneys.

Call it a totally unsubstantiated hunch, but contract lawyering is likely to become a more common topic of conversation in the next few years.

Special thanks to Norma Freitas, Kathy Foldes, Heidi Strauch and Phil Griffin for contributing their thoughts and experience to this article.