Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Freelance Paralegal

Note: Today's Guest Author is Dorothy Secol, CLA. Dorothy has been in the legal profession for more than 35 years and a f'reelance paralegal since 1982. Ms. Secol was a petitioner in the case of In re Opinion 24 of the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, 128 N.J. 114 (1992). The case validated the fact that there is no distinguishable difference between an in-house and f'reelance paralegal working under the direct supervision of an attorney.

The Freelance Paralegal
By Dorothy Secol, CLA

So, you want to freelance! Going into business for yourself; sounds wonderful doesn't it. Well, it is...and it isn't.

What does it take to be an independent or contract paralegal? A lot of tenacity, determination, a thick skin, business knowledge and the means to sustain yourself through the start-up time. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur.

Being a f'reelance paralegal is much more than being a paralegal. It is also being a business owner, and with that comes the responsibility of owning a business, having assets, liabilities, insurance, employees, payroll, etc. etc.

It is also not a field for someone who has just graduated from a paralegal program. Working on your own is for someone who is a seasoned paralegal with a good working knowledge of substantive law, office procedure and law office management. In order to f'reelance, one should have been working in the field for at least 5-7 years. The more responsibility you have carried, the better training you will have to go it alone.

In the beginning, one drawback of f'reelancing will be the isolation you might feel. Especially if you come from a large office. You will be on your own, alone, working in whatever area of substantive law you choose. It will be up to you to keep up with all the changes going on, i.e. rules changes, changes in legislation and changes in case law. You won't have the advantage of that big law library at your fingertips. However, in today's world, with the Internet at hand, you at least have the means to find what you need without the big library.

Another factor to consider is the lack of benefits. You won't have health insurance, vacation time or sick days. You may also work many more hours than you are working in-house. It is not easy to start a business and you must consider all factors when making the decision to f'reelance.

Many f'reelance paralegals start out by working at home, which is great if you are a disciplined person who can shut out all of the distractions of your household. Equipping your home office is as necessary as equipping a rental space. As you grow, you may need to rent office space, buy or lease equipment, hire more independent contractors or secretaries and deal with vendors when you purchase supplies.

Just think what it would take to equip a small law office from scratch. That's what you will be doing, from desks to copy machines to fax machines to telephone systems, paper, pens, computers, paper clips; it goes on and on. You must be ready to finance all of this equipment and have enough funds put away to live on while you are building your business.

When you become an independent contractor, you must keep exact records of your time, in order to bill properly. Without that billing, you won't get paid! So, you must learn to keep meticulous records as to your time and expenses. You will also be responsible for your own tax payments and keep exact records. You will obtain a federal identification number for your business so that you can pay taxes separately if you so choose. As you grow and hire people to work for you, your federal id number will be in place for payroll purposes.

After making the decision to f'reelance, you should consult with an accountant to determine how you want to set up your business, whether you will work as a sole proprietor, incorporate, have an LLC or if you are going into business with someone else, perhaps a partnership or LLP. There are many options you can choose.

There are many pros and cons to consider before making the decision to f'reelance. There are benefits; you are your own boss. You are building a future for yourself, a future in which you have financial security and can be independent. You will grow as an individual, learning to master the business world. Dealing with vendors, suppliers, attorneys, their clients, employees, other independent contractors will broaden your horizons, make your more self-reliant, self-confident and give you a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. Some of the cons are listed above.

Another part of your business will be learning how to market yourself. Advertising to attorneys and getting the word out, are very important to your success. There is direct mail advertising, referrals from attorneys you are close to, walking the beat, and calling on attorneys to tell about your services and whatever innovative methods you can come up with. And of course, the all important web site! Learning what will work for you will come with trial and error.

One important aspect to be aware of: when you are f'reelancing and working for attorneys on their files, you have to be perfect. If you are not up to date with the rules and don't know the correct procedures for the pleadings you are drafting, if you make grammatical errors, if you don't proofread your work, you will not last very long. Remember, you need to perform services better than those available to the attorney in their office, otherwise they don't need you.

There are many different roles you will play.Not only will you be working as a paralegal in your chosen area of substantive law, but you will also be running a business, working on making it expand and grow. Eventually you might be an employer, hiring office staff. You will be making decisions on which equipment to buy or lease, which office to rent.

The foregoing is an overview of what is takes to set up shop as a f'reelance paralegal. Running the day-to-day operation, dealing with your attorney-clients and their clients, marketing your business, those are stories for another day.

Dorothy Secol, CLA has worked in the legal profession for over 35 years and has been a f'reelance paralegal since 1982.

Ms. Secol is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and received her CLA status in 1978. In addition, she is a former trustee of the Central Jersey Paralegal Association and a former Vice-President and trustee of Legal Assistants Association of New Jersey, now known as Paralegal Association of New Jersey. She is an associate member of the New Jersey State Bar Association and is a past Co-Chair of that Committee. She is also a member of the Foreclosure Committee. Ms. Secol serves on the Paralegal Advisory Boards of Brookdale Community College and Ocean County College and is a mediator for the Ocean Township, Allenhurst and Deal Municipal Courts appointed by the New Jersey Superior Court.

Ms. Secol is the author of Starting and Managing Your Own Business: A F'reelancing Guide for Paralegals, published by Aspen Publishing Co. and has written articles for the New Jersey Law Journal, and New Jersey Lawyer. In addition, Ms. Secol was a petitioner in the case of In re Opinion 24 of the Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law, 128 N.J. 114 (1992). The case validated the fact that there is no distinguishable difference between an in-house and f'reelance paralegal working under the direct supervision of an attorney.

Ms. Secol has presented seminars on real estate procedure, probate procedure and law office management as well as how to set up a business as a f'reelance paralegal.

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