More than a temp job

Dan Heilman, The Daily Record Newswire

Facing down a stretch of time when work is coming in slowly or isn't coming in at all can send a chill down the spine of any solo lawyer. But depending on your practice area and where you are in your career, doing contract work can be a great way to keep revenue coming in until things pick up.

Contract work that is, working on a temporary, contract basis, as opposed to examining contracts usually consists of overload work that a firm or agency doesn't have the full-time staff to do. It can often consist of things like document review, legal research, drafting of briefs and other miscellaneous duties, usually for only the duration of a case.

The good news is that if your skills and experience are a match, the work is out there.

"We get calls all the time looking for contract attorneys - probably every day," said Tim Mahoney, regional vice president of legal search and staffing company Special Counsel. "There's a high demand for attorneys to work on a contract basis, all the way from high-end corporate and law firm clients down to project work like document work and e-discovery."

Mahoney said that the type of work available usually depends on the skill set the client is looking for. Areas often in demand include IP or patent law, or working with complex transactions. Working in those specialty areas can mean earning around $125 per hour, while doing lower-level work such as document review pays closer to $25 per hour.

Good option for rookie lawyers

The most common time for attorneys to seek out contract work is when they've just passed the bar and are first licensed to practice. That was the case for veteran White Bear Lake attorney Donald W. Kohler, who did contract work for about six months while waiting for his practice to get off the ground.

"It was something to do," said Kohler. "I continued doing some file work even after I started my own practice. If I hadn't done contract work, I wouldn't have known a lot of lawyers who I got work from once I had my own practice. It was a good transition."

Kohler was fortunate, he said, in that one attorney he did contract work for referred him a good handful of cases when he retired.

"That got me through the first year of having my own practice," he said.

St. Cloud attorney Tony Toepfer did oil and gas title work on a contract basis for the then-named Leonard, Street and Deinard firm, also just after law school. It turned out to be a boon for him in that it provided a good, steady living as well as valuable experience with an established firm.

"I got a flat $50 an hour no matter how many hours I worked, and regardless of how they billed the client," he said. "It wasn't unusual for me to work 60 or more hours some weeks, so it added up. The money was better than what most first-year associates would make at a big firm."

Mahoney said it's possible to make a living going from one contract to the next, and that he knows many attorneys who do just that. "They like the flexibility of it," he said. "Some use it as a way to augment a small or solo practice. This makes up for slow periods."

Not so good for established attorneys

But dipping in and out of contract work, especially once your practice is established, can be tricky.

"It might be harder if you've had your own practice or you're established in some way," said Toepfer. "People who are hiring might wonder why you're looking for contract work. You might say you're considering a change in practice area and you're testing the waters."

Kohler said he did some contract work recently for a city prosecutor, but soon found out that the work was cutting into his schedule too much to make it worthwhile.

"I ended up burning up half my day in criminal court," he said. "What I made just barely covered my overhead. I probably shouldn't have taken it."

With that in mind, one key to seeking contract work is knowing how it fits with where you are in your career. It can bring a wealth of contacts, mentors and even referral sources someone who can vouch for your skills to a prospective full-time employer.

When looking for contract work, Mahoney advises keeping an open mind and understanding how the contract process works. Even though the work is temporary, the firm or company giving you the assignment is going to want a good amount of commitment toward the project.

"Know what you bring to the table so you have realistic expectations about the opportunities out there and where you fit in them," Mahoney said. "We use lots of people on a repeat basis. The ones who do a good job are the ones we call next time."

Published: Tue, Dec 02, 2014