My Road to Freelance Lawyering
I recently gave a presentation to a bar association about freelance legal services and after the presentation, a few lawyers asked me how and why I came to have this niche practice. Freelance lawyering is a choice well outside of the mainstream, but I have been making non-traditional choices throughout my legal career. In many ways, freelancing is the logical culmination of my choices and preferences.
I graduated from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law in 2011. Before law school, my husband and I lived in ski towns, and after graduation we were eager to return to the mountains of Colorado. After several years in his job, my husband was looking to make a change. The two of us basically made a pact that we would both start looking for jobs in a few Colorado ski towns. We decided that we would move wherever one of us first landed a job. I assumed he would get a job first, based on his industry experience and strong network in the places we wanted to live.
Right after taking the bar exam, I saw a posting on the Colorado Bar Association jobs board for a small law firm in Gunnison, Colorado. My husband and I had recently visited Crested Butte (the next town over from Gunnison) on a ski vacation and were blown away by its beauty and character. I naturally jumped at the opportunity to work in such a special community. I was pleasantly surprised to get an interview then an offer with the firm. Much to my surprise, I landed a job before my husband and we decided to move to Crested Butte.
Here, I made my first and second non-traditional career choices. Most of my friends took clerkships, continued with internships with federal agencies, or started with larger firms in Denver. Most of my friends began specializing in one or two areas of the law—family law, criminal law, bankruptcy, estate planning, etc—right away. I packed my bags and ventured to a general practice one lawyer shop in rural Colorado.
As a lawyer in a small firm in a small town in rural Colorado, you have to be a “jack of all trades.” It was sink or swim and I was quickly given substantial litigation responsibility. It was honestly like drinking from a fire hose! The upside was that I very quickly honed my legal research skills across a wide range of substantive areas.
I practiced general civil litigation full time for about two and a half years. In spring 2013, I had my first child. My firm offered me a flexible work schedule and I reduced my hours. There, I made my third non-traditional career choice. Some of my friends from law school were having children, but I didn’t know any that practiced law on a part-time basis. I continued working reduced hours/flexible schedule for another two years.
When I had my second child (after a scary pregnancy and premature birth), I decided to take a career break. Here was my fourth non-traditional career choice. I knew this was in my plans, but it was a total leap of faith for me to walk away from practicing law. It was an open-ended career break, but I did intend to return to practicing in the future when I felt ready to do so. At one point, I told someone from Attorney Regulation Counsel that I was taking a break from the law. I was told that the statistics on reentering law practice were “grim.”
For the first year of my career break, I was content to focus on my family and honestly did not miss the law world. About the time of my youngest child’s first birthday, however, I started to want to have a professional presence in my life again. I turned to my former employer and let him know that I was ready to take on some work. My old boss would regularly give me legal research or writing projects. I was able to help another busy lawyer, keep my skills sharp, and work on my own time. I really loved it. I might have happily continued on that track, but my old boss was wrapping up his law practice and heading towards retirement. Over time, he sent me less and less work. I knew I needed to figure out another option.
A year and a half into my career break, I was ready to think about how I wanted to reenter practice. I did a lot of soul searching. With two young children, I just wasn’t ready to return to working full time. Even if I was, there are very, very law jobs available in my small town. I was wracking my brain to figure out a way to work part-time, or at least with a flexible schedule, from my small and remote town, and while focusing on my strengths. I love legal research and writing and working with other lawyers. I do not as much love working directly with clients and the doing the daily grind against opposing counsel.
After some dead ends and doors closing in my face, a light bulb went off in my head. Why don’t I continue doing the contract work that I love, just on a larger and more formal scale? I started reading everything I could about contract/freelance lawyering. I read freelance attorneys’ websites, blogs, and books. I spoke with other lawyers. I read ethics opinions about this business model.
There are a lot of trade-offs to living in a small town several hours from bigger population centers. There are real barriers to starting and sustaining a professional career in a place like Crested Butte. By having a virtual practice serving lawyers and clients throughout the state, I may have found a way to develop a career on my terms in a sustainable way.
I took the plunge and started a solo practice in September 2017. I formed Coleman Law to offer litigation support and legal research and writing services to Colorado lawyers on a freelance basis. I now help solo and small firm practitioners sustain and grow their practices.
I am so happy that I made this choice. I get to focus on research and writing. I get to use litigation skills, but in a behind the scenes capacity. I absolutely love helping other lawyers. Although I work with lawyers across the state, I often work with lawyers in small town Colorado. I love serving these communities. I am very fortunate to put my skills and experience to work in this way!