Professional Development

My Road to Freelance Lawyering

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!

balancing work and play...conference calls then bike rides

balancing work and play...conference calls then bike rides

 

 

Teaching at Western State Colorado University

I am so pleased to announce that I will be teaching POLS 282, State and Local Politics, at Western State Colorado University for Fall 2018.  I truly love civics education, and I am really happy to help the next generation of Political Science and Education majors learn more about their government and how to effectively engage all levels of their government.  I am looking forward to connecting with the faculty and srudents of Western!

Northwest Bar Association CLE

On March 16, I had the opportunity to meet with some of the lawyers of the Northwest Colorado Bar Association in Steamboat Springs. I gave a CLE presentation on "Ethical Considerations in the Use of Freelance Legal Services."  I especially love giving this presentation to lawyers in rural Colorado because they are mostly solo/small firm practitioners--and that's a group that can really benefit from freelance work and extra support from time to time.  I also especially love giving this presentation in another ski town!

The CLE covers:

  • basic terminology and arrangements within the freelance legal services context
  • disclosure to the client
  • confidentiality issues
  • conflicts of interest issues
  • billing for freelance legal services
  • working with freelance lawyers in other jurisdictions
  • fee agreements with freelance lawyers

Thanks again for having me!

 

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Ski Town Lawyering: Mindset and Tips

In previous posts, I covered the challenges and opportunities of being a ski town lawyer and some of the business models I have seen ski town lawyers adopt.  Now it is time to talk about mindset and the tips and tricks to get you a ski town lawyering gig!

Crested Butte

Crested Butte

 

THE MINDSET

If you’re serious about breaking into the ski town lawyering market, you need to adopt the right attitude.  Going into this process with some perspective will make a difference, I think.

Your Compensation is not Monetary

I’ve already discussed how attorney compensation in Colorado outside of the metro areas is pretty severely depressed.  Don’t get me wrong—lawyers in ski towns can and do make a good living, but average attorney compensation just doesn’t compare to Denver rates.  That can be a bitter pill to swallow. 

It really helps if you realize that part of your compensation is not monetary.  I try to remind myself daily that ‘privilege has nothing to do with wealth’ and that I am incredibly privileged to live and practice law here. 

My last law office was on the bus route to the ski area and I could be skiing within minutes of leaving the office.  I can access hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain biking trails within a few miles of my driveway.  If you live for outdoor recreation (and I assume you do, if you’re looking to be a ski town lawyer), there’s simply no substitute for living in the middle of millions of acres of public land. 

There are other ways living in a ski town makes up for your lower compensation.  In general, I’ve found ski towns to be pretty livable communities.  The pace of life is slower, people get to know each other, the schools are great, and everyone has made similar choices and tradeoffs to get to live here long-term.  

Have the ‘Figure it Out’ Gene

A lawyer who practiced in rural Colorado for many years told me that you just have to have the ‘figure it out’ gene.  As I discussed in the last post, lawyers here are mostly generalists.  As a ski town lawyer, you are tasked with developing a pretty wide range of legal skills and competencies.  You have to decide for yourself whether you can live with that. 

The Old-Timers

Unfortunately, you might not always be welcomed with open arms by the established legal community.  In every ski town, there’s a contingent of old-times who resist change and fresh blood (even as they profit off of the increased business from an influx of new residents and visitors).  In fact, I am sure there are ski town lawyers who are miffed that I am daring to write this blog post!

I’ve definitely found them to be in the minority, but they are out there.  My advice is to not take it personally and to seek out connections and mentors who will welcome you into the community. 

Realize What You’re Getting Into

I alluded to some of the challenges inherent in living in a ski town.  Like many things, a blessing can also be a curse.  Yeah, everyone wants snow in February, but will you still be stoked for it in late May?  Because it WILL snow in late May.  Yeah, the town is charming and cute, but will it still look that way when you’re tired of eating at the same five restaurants you can actually afford?  Yeah, it’s a nice community, but what about when your town is overrun with tourists?  What about when your town literally shuts down in late April and everyone else goes surfing in Mexico for a month?  

I don’t mean to discourage aspiring ski town lawyers, but these are really things you’ll deal with.  To the extent that you can recognize these realities and demonstrate that you can deal with them, you’ll be better off.  I live in one of the coldest places in Colorado (-25F is not at all uncommon) and it seems that every firm has a tale of an associate who baled after one year because they (or their spouse) couldn’t deal with the cold. 

TIPS

There are a few really concrete steps you can do to help you break into the ski town lawyer job market.  Here are some of the things I recommend:

  • Contact every single lawyer you know in ski towns and let them know you want in!  Every year, I get a few phone calls or emails from lawyers (some who I know and some who I don’t know) with questions about ski town law practice and I am always happy to speak with them.  I doubt I am the only one.  The purpose of this is not to ask for a job.  The purpose is to ask questions about practicing in a ski town, demonstrate interest, and establish that you’re serious about this transition.  After a pleasant meeting over a cup of coffee or a beer, you can give them your contact information and ask that they keep you in mind if they ever hear of law openings in their community.
  • Contact every single person you know who knows someone who practices in a ski town.  A friend of a friend of a friend is a friend indeed.  Again, this is about networking more than looking for a particular job.
  • Show that you recognize limitations of working here.  If you’re lucky enough to land a job interview in a ski town, I think it really helps if you can demonstrate that you understand the culture of ski towns.  This means understanding access to justice issues, rural clientele, small towns, the aforementioned challenges, etc.
  • Establish some connection with the community.  I think this is probably the best advice that I can give you—get involved in the community.  If you’ve previously lived in a ski town, have friends or family in a ski town, or have ties to a ski town, you’ll set yourself apart from lawyers who just want to come and ski. 
  • Regularly check the Colorado Bar Association’s Jobs Board and the Judicial Branch website.  First, by checking regularly, you’ll get a sense of the practice areas needed in ski towns.  Second, you can jump on good ski town lawyering jobs as soon as they come up.  I see law jobs in the Vail Valley and Roaring Fork Valley listed fairly often on the CBA jobs board.  You’ll also see listings in towns that aren’t “ski towns” strictly speaking, but are within an hour or so of ski resorts or incredible backcountry skiing.
  • Be involved in your community.  One of the best ways to generate business and referrals is to be visible and involved in your community.  If you’ve already made the leap and moved to your dream ski town, this advice is especially applicable to you.  Join a board, volunteer, serve on a county bar or commission, be active in your faith or recreation communities.  Volunteer to coordinate or give CLE presentations to the local bar association (join your local bar association!). 

I hope this series on ski town lawyering is helpful!  If you're looking to become a lawyer in a ski town, I am happy to offer whatever help I can (gotta pay it forward)!

-Sarah 

 

 

 

 

Ski Town Lawyering: Nuts and Bolts

Ski Town Lawyering: Nuts and Bolts

Fantasy: "I’ll be general counsel for a ski company!"  "I’ll be the premier ski accident and injury lawyer in Colorado!"

Reality: “I’m getting evicted from my trailer.  I need a lawyer.”

Slate River

Slate River

 

When people tell me that they want to be a ski town lawyer, I sometimes take that with a grain of salt.  What do they really want?  What do they think ski town lawyering is all about? 

The reality is that Vail’s corporate counsel isn’t in a ski town (the main corporate offices are in a Denver suburb), and hardly anyone handles ski accident litigation on a large scale. 

Having busted these two fantasies, what do ski town lawyers do?  How does one hack it as a ski town lawyer? 

The answer is: there are a lot of ways to be a lawyer in a ski town.  In this post, I’ll explore some of the models I have seen ski town lawyers use to support themselves.

Model #1: You Are A “Real” Lawyer (Congratulations!)

This model is the most traditional of the ways to practice law in a ski town.  Here, the lawyer is what the general public thinks of when they think “lawyer.”  The lawyer has a brick and mortar office in the ski town or surrounding area.  The lawyer probably does some advertising, either on the local radio station or in the local newspaper.  They generally accept the clients that walk through the door.  They’re a solo practitioner or in a small firm a few partners or associates.

I said in an earlier post that ski town lawyers are generalists, and this is especially true in this context.  In this model, lawyers might advertise expertise in a few practice areas.  Here are the substantive practice areas that I see the most need for in ski towns:

·       Homeowners Associations

·       Land Use

·       Real Estate

·       Water Law

·      Domestic/Family Law

·       Criminal Defense

·       Probate and Estate Administration

·       Estate Planning

·       Small Business

·       Civil Litigation

The advantages of this model are that you pull clients from a lot of different areas and can cast a pretty wide net.  You’ll meet a ton of lawyers and lay people in your area and community.  You can build a reputation for yourself and start to put down roots.

The disadvantage is that you’ll really feel the bust part of the boom-and-bust cycle that inevitably comes.  You’re a generalist, so you have to be competent in many areas and you’ll need to be extremely proficient in legal research.  Unless you have an “in” to one of the established firms in the area, you might find it difficult to get your foot in the door.  Starting your own practice if you’re new to the area is really risky.

Model #2: Institutional or Organizational Clients

The second model that I see working for ski town lawyers is to have an institutional client or work for one.  I see this mostly in two contexts: the criminal law world as a District Attorney or Public Defender and the municipal law world as County Attorney or Municipal Attorney.

In some ways, this might be the easiest way to get your foot in the door as an aspiring ski town lawyer, especially as a DA/PD.  The Colorado Public Defender’s Office has offices in Dillion (near A-Basin, Breck, Keystone, and Copper), Steamboat Springs, Salida (Monarch Mountain), Glenwood Springs (Aspen, Snowmass, Buttermilk), and Durango (Purgatory).  Some of these are not “ski towns” in the strictest sense but they’re within reasonable striking distance to world class skiing. 

The drawback about working in the PDs office is that you have little control over your first assignment and you could find yourself working in an office about as far from skiing as you can get while still being in Colorado.  My sense is that you have much greater control over this as you gain experience and seniority, but I can’t describe the process with any confidence.

Besides criminal law, municipal law is a great avenue for a ski town lawyer.  Counties are vested with certain functions, including providing Health and Human Services programs, so child protection is an important component of being a County Attorney.  County Attorneys also advise the Board of County Commissioners and county boards/commissions, such as the Planning Commission.  County Attorneys have to be familiar with open meeting laws, public record laws, land use, contracts, employment law, and a host of other topics.  The same goes for Town Attorneys.  Depending on the size of the municipality, it might employ lawyers in house or it might contract with a law firm to provide representation.

The good thing is that I do see these jobs advertised fairly regularly.  The bad thing is that, depending on the county, there might be a grand total of one lawyer serving as County Attorney and that same lawyer has served in that role for 40 years.  It seems to me that this is pretty mixed bag in terms of opportunities and turn over, so I think you’d need to be open to a variety of locations if you’re seeking these types of jobs.  

Model #3: Get a Contract

The Colorado Judicial Branch has several state agencies with a specialized legal focus, including the Office of the Child’s Representative (Guardian Ad Litems), Office of the Respondent Parent Counsel (lawyers for parents in dependency and neglect proceedings), Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel (criminal defense lawyers for when the Public Defender’s Office is conflicted out of representation). 

These offices generally engage lawyers as contractors to provide services to their constituent clients.  Each office has different criteria and processes for selecting lawyers. 

The hourly rate for this type of work is comparatively low, but it’s a great source of income for a ski town lawyer.  Many ski town lawyers have, at one point in their career or another, gained a contract with a state judicial agency and have kept fairly busy through that work.

Model #4: Part-time/Remote/Specialized Lawyering

For whatever reason, there seems to be a higher percentage of lawyers in ski towns working part-time or remotely. 

More and more employers are open to considering remote options.  If you can land a gig with this set-up, go for it and move to your dream town! 

I said earlier that ski town lawyers tend to be generalists.  Although that’s generally the case, if your location doesn’t really matter to your practice, you could set up shop in a ski town.  If you’re a specialist and have an established reputation such that your ability to pull in clients does not depend on your location, this could be a good model for you.  I see this working for lawyers who have worked for a long time in a larger city and established some niche practice there that they can later transfer to a ski town. 

Model #5: JD Advantage

In this model, the lawyer also works outside of practicing law, albeit in a field where having a JD may be beneficial or advantageous. 

I’ve known many lawyers who have served as executive directors or policy-oriented staff members of nonprofit organizations, especially ones that intersect with the law in some specialized way, like environment or education.

Real estate is another cross-over area.  If you want to make money in a ski town, be a ski town real estate agent during the boom time.

Politics is an option for ski town lawyers.  I know ski town lawyers with private practices who have served as Mayor, Town Councilor, County Commissioner, or in the state legislature.

Teaching is a great way to supplement practicing law.  Some ski towns are lucky enough to have community colleges or universities.  Colorado Mountain College has campuses in Leadville, Steamboat Springs, Aspen/Roaring Fork Valley, Breckenridge, Dillon, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and the Vail Valley.  Gunnison (near Crested Butte) has Western State Colorado University.  Durango (near Purgatory) has Ft. Lewis College.  I know many lawyers who have served as adjunct professors in political science, environment/natural resources, business law, or some related area.

This obviously isn’t for everyone and might not be what you think of when you think “ski town lawyer.”  But it is definitely a viable option and you’ll draw on many of the same skills as you would practicing law. 

Model #6: Not At All A Lawyer (Alternate Income Streams)

More than a few ski town lawyers have alternate income streams.  Almost everyone in a ski town has a main squeeze and a side hustle, and lawyers are not exempt from this.  How much of your work involves practicing law and how much involves that side hustle can vary pretty widely.

I know coffee shop owners and property managers and innkeepers and project managers who are lawyers in a ski town.  

Conclusion:

There’s no one right way to be a ski town lawyer.  These are just some of the models I’ve seen friends and colleagues adopt.  If you’re serious about becoming a ski town lawyer, start Googling law firms and lawyers in ski towns to get a feel for the kind of work they do.  Get a feel for the major institutions and employers in the area.  Start calling and emailing lawyers and offering to take them out for coffee or a beer.

In the next post, I’ll discuss the mindset you should adopt as an aspiring ski town lawyer.

Ski Town Lawyering: Challenges and Opportunities

If you’re seriously thinking about becoming a ski town lawyer, you need to make that decision with your eyes open to both the challenges and opportunities of living and working in this type of community.  For me, the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks, but you’ll have to make that decision for yourself.  

Nordic ski track looking towards the Paradise Divide

Nordic ski track looking towards the Paradise Divide

THE CHALLENGES

Small Towns

Although the population of ski towns varies, you’re going to be in a pretty small town, especially compared to the larger population centers on the Front Range.  Here is the breakdown of approximate county population size of some of Colorado’s best ski areas:

  • La Plata County (Purgatory): 55,000
  • Eagle County (Vail, Beaver Creek): 54,000
  • Summit County (Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone): 30,000
  • Routt County (Steamboat Springs): 25,000
  • Chaffee County (Monarch Mountain): 19,000
  • Pitkin County (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, Snowmass): 17,000
  • Gunnison County (Crested Butte): 16,000
  • Grand County (Winter Park): 15,000
  • San Miguel County (Telluride): 8,000
  • San Juan County (Silverton): 694—yes, you read that right.

Keep in mind that this is the population of the entire county, some of which rival the smaller states in size.  As you can see, some resorts are in counties with a healthy population base, some are…not.  Your ability to land a job in a ski town will very likely strongly correlate with the population of that town or county.  Anecdotally, I see more legal job postings in Pitkin County and Eagle County than other ski towns, which is probably a function of population size, accessibility, and wealth concentration.

Remote

The distance from the population centers and resources in the Front Range is a huge factor in being a ski town lawyer.  Many Colorado ski resorts line the I-70 corridor or are a 2 hour drive from Denver.  Summit County and Eagle County are the most accessible from Denver.  Others are an 8 hour drive from Denver.  And these are not easy cruises.  Getting from Denver to almost any ski town will involve driving over one or two 12,000-foot mountain passes.  San Juan County is accessed by the scariest road in America, Red Mountain Pass.  (Don’t believe me?  Read this Outside Magazine article: https://www.outsideonline.com/2158856/keep-your-hands-wheel-and-dont-look-down)

I am hardly a winter driving novice, but between wildlife on the road, sketchy weather, and serious passes, I think twice about driving in the mountains in the winter.  It is definitely something to keep in mind.  Some towns are supported by the Denver drive market, and some are more of destination resorts. 

The remote and relatively inaccessible nature of ski towns can be an access to justice issue.  Every appellate court in Colorado is located in Denver.  Most state and federal agencies are headquartered in Denver or the surrounding suburbs.  This can mean long and expensive travel to represent clients, although Colorado is working on expanding remote oral argument opportunities in the Court of Appeals.

I live in Colorado's 7th Judicial District.  The official Colorado Judicial Branch webpage says this about the 7th JD:

The 7th Judicial District is made up of six counties in west-central Colorado...The geographical area of the District is approximately 10,000 square miles of mostly high mountain valleys. This area is about the same size as the state of Vermont or Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The distance between Lake City in the eastern part of the District and Nucla in the west is approximately 200 miles one-way. The towns of Gunnison (Gunnison County), Lake City (Hinsdale) and Telluride (San Miguel County) have elevations of over 7,700 feet.

Boom and Bust

At any time, ski towns fall somewhere in a continual boom-and-bust economic cycle.  When the economy is strong, ski resorts do well, visitors come and spend their money, businesses open and hire employees, and houses are built.  When the economy is in a recession, ski towns feel it hard.  People stop coming, businesses go under, houses go into foreclosure, and locals move out of town.  And because so much of the economy directly or indirectly depends on tourism, the impact is really concentrated. 

You’ll absolutely see a difference practicing law in a boom time versus a bust time, and you need to think about building a practice that can weather the slow times as well as the busy ones.

Specialist vs. Generalist

Ski towns, especially the smaller ones, do not support legal specialists.  (I’ll talk more about business models in a later post).  If you want to practice bankruptcy or immigration or patent law, you will probably find it difficult to do in a ski town.  Most ski town lawyers are generalists to some extent.  You'll really need to consider whether you can live with that, or really need to consider how you’ll hack it in a ski town with a more specialized practice.

Also, most lawyers in ski towns practice in solo or small firms.  In my county, the biggest firm has four lawyers.  Some larger law firms in Denver have a satellite office in a ski town, especially Vail or Aspen, but those often consist of a few lawyers at the most.

Compensation

Pretty much as a rule, compensation is lower across the board in rural Colorado compared to the urban corridor.  This is true in the legal profession.  Your salary is just not going to be what it would be in Denver.  If money is a primary consideration for you (no judgment either way), assess whether you’ll be happy not being able to keep up with the Denver Joneses and being on the left (low) end of the bimodal attorney compensation distribution curve.

Economic Opportunities

Limited economic opportunity is somewhat of a hallmark of ski towns.  This might not directly impact you as a lawyer, but it will definitely impact your clients, spouse, and children.  Ski town jobs focus on hospitality, resort management, and recreation.  Some of the larger ski towns will have colleges or universities, hospitals, start-ups, and state/federal government offices.  I personally think there is tremendous potential for growth in ski towns and in rural Colorado, but the reality is that there is simply less opportunity compared what you’d find in a bigger city.

One issue that I have seen play out time and time again is that one half of a couple can find a job that they’re happy with in a ski town, but the other partner really struggles to find a job in their chosen field.  If you have a significant other, have a really honest conversation about this before you make the plunge to be a ski town lawyer.

Resort Town Issues

There are a couple of unavoidable truths about ski town life.  The cost of living is high.  Affordable housing, even on a lawyer’s salary, can feel like a pipe dream.  You might get sick of getting pizza from the one joint in town.  Small town politics can be really fun.  If you’re in a ski town, you really might experience a couple months of -20 mornings and you really might have snow on the ground from October to May.  When they're road biking and golfing in Denver, we might be living through 'Mayuary,' also known as ‘second winter.’ 

If you’re really committed to living in a ski town, assuming you haven’t already spent time living in one, try to see it through a local’s eyes.  Imagine actually living here for a year or two, not just as an occasional weekend visitor.  Sometimes, people come to a ski town on vacation and imagine their life here as an extension of their vacation.  I think this happens more often with casual visitors more so than with frequent visitors or Colorado natives.  Just keep in mind what you’re getting into!

THE OPPORTUNITIES

If you’ve read all about the challenges and it didn’t completely scare you off, the good news is that there really are opportunities for lawyers in ski towns.  I am going to talk more specifically about business/employment models in the next post, but here is my take on the opportunities that will help you land a ski town lawyering gig.

Need for Lawyers

In my experience, a large segment of ski town lawyers are entering retirement age or have moved out of the area.  I haven’t seen a significant influx of new lawyers taking their place.  I believe there is a need for lawyers in ski towns and a very strong need for lawyers in counties adjacent to counties with ski towns.  For example, my county, Gunnison County, has a healthy population of practicing lawyers.  The counties directly to the south of me, Saguache and Hinsdale Counties, have very low population densities and have maybe 1 or 2 lawyers.  If you're at all interested in access to justice work, there is a role for you in rural Colorado. 

Strong Growth

Colorado is experiencing strong economic growth, and ski towns are no exception.  There’s no doubt that we are in the boom part of the boom and bust cycle.  I see entire neighborhoods being built, and during my time on the Planning Commission, I saw several new large-scale commercial developments approved.  People are definitely visiting, moving to, or investing money in ski towns, and they'll need lawyers at some point.

The changing demographic and the pace of growth both suggest that there is an unfilled need for ski town lawyers.  Most of the lawyers I know practicing in a ski town are busy these days.  Some report that they are really busier than they want to be. 

Whether or not solos and small firms are advertising for associates, my sense is that they could use additional help and that business is brisk.

Collegial Atmosphere

An additional opportunity is that ski town lawyers tend to be a very close knit and collegial group.  Lawyers in general are pretty generous with their time, and I think most ski town lawyers would be happy to sit down over coffee or a beer and discuss practicing in their community.  I talk with several lawyers each year looking to make the transition to practicing law in the mountains, and I am always willing to be a sounding board or resource for them.

Mentoring

The Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program facilitates mentoring relationships between Colorado lawyers.  Lawyers can specify the criteria and qualities that they are looking for in a mentor or mentee.  I think this would be a great opportunity for aspiring ski town lawyers to connect with established ski town lawyers (I do think it might make sense to connect with a lawyer in a different area of the state to avoid being in competition for jobs or clients). 

NEXT POST:

In the next post, I am going to discuss the various business and employment models I have seen for ski town lawyers.   

Ski Town Lawyering: Introduction

So, you want to be a ski town lawyer?

I am blessed to live in Crested Butte, which calls itself “Colorado’s last great ski town.”  I’ve lived here since 2011, and I often field calls from other lawyers who want to relocate to a ski town (or at least they think they do).  In a series of posts, I am going to cover the opportunities and challenges of being a ski town lawyer, the various business models I have seen ski town lawyers adopt, the mindset you should have, and some practical tips and suggestions to help you land a ski town lawyering gig.

I often remind myself that “privilege has nothing to do with wealth.”  There are so many wonderful things about living and practicing law in a community like Crested Butte.  Every single day, I am humbled by the incredible beauty of this place.  I get to live where others vacation.  I can be on a ski lift in 20 minutes, can go on a mountain bike ride starting from my driveway, and have access to millions of acres of public land.  The people, however, are what make towns like this so special.  We’re a funky town with a ‘work hard, play harder’ mentality and we make our own fun.

But there’s also the reality of winter for 9 months, expensive and limited housing, seeing the same people over (and over and over and over) again, and the quirks of living in a town where you can’t buy standard socks and underwear (true story—you can buy $50 organic wool ski socks or moisture-wicking high-performance underwear, but you have to drive 30 miles for tube socks and granny panties).

If you’re curious about practicing law in a ski town, read on….

Whetstone in the clouds

Whetstone in the clouds

Book Review: The Freelance Lawyering Manual

Book Review: The Freelance Lawyering Manual

I read Kimberly Alderman’s The Freelance Lawyering Manual: What Every Lawyer Needs to Know About the New Temporary Attorney Market several months ago and recently picked it back up.  This book is filled with practical suggestions, real world examples, and valuable insights for lawyers considering starting a freelance law practice and for lawyers who might hire or work with freelance lawyers.

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Introduction

After a few years as a stay-at-home mom, I was ready to have a professional presence in my life again.  I searched high and low for law jobs that met a few criteria: i) a part-time or flexible schedule to allow me to stay at home with my girls a few days a week, ii) something I could do from my tiny town in the middle of nowhere Colorado, and iii) something that was substantively interesting to me.  Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find a multitude of jobs that ticked all of those boxes! 

I began to reflect on what I really liked to do.  For a while, I did a limited amount of contract work for my former employer.  I drafted memos and pleadings and did legal research.  I loved it.  It was a serious lightbulb moment when I realized I could build an entire practice based on this type of contract work!  I started to research a freelance legal services business model and I came across  The Freelance Lawyering Manual.  This book was exactly what I needed to take the plunge and start my own solo freelance practice. 

The book is organized into three sections: Part I, What Freelance Lawyers Need to Know; Part II, What Hiring Attorneys Need to Know; and Part III, Issues of Joint Concern: Ethical Requirements.

Part 1: Information for Freelance Lawyers

In Chapter 1, Ms. Alderman discusses the freelance legal market.  This chapter contrasts the hit the legal industry took with the 2008 recession with the growth of the freelance economy.  This book is from 2011, so some of the discussion is a little dated.  The gig economy, however, has continued to expand and has made serious inroads in the legal profession.  I think that there is a tremendous untapped market in the legal profession for freelance legal services.

In Chapter 2, Ms. Alderman helps lawyers decide whether freelancing lawyer will be a good fit.  I found this section very beneficial as I was considering this career path.  I felt that I could make an informed decision and have my eyes open to both the challenges and opportunities of freelancing.  Ms. Alderman offers some “plain truths” about freelancing law practice that, in my experience, hold up.  Here are the freelancing lawyering plain truths:

·       #1 “Successful freelance law practices aren’t built overnight”

·       #2 “It may take years of building a freelance law practice to achieve regular, consistent income”

·       #3 “Young freelance law practices are typically general in nature”

·       #4 “No one is going to babysit you into doing your job”

·       #5 “You are not going to have the support staff that you would with a traditional lawyer job”

·       #6 “Marketing a freelance law practice is no easier than marketing a traditional firm—if anything, it is harder”

·       #7 “Freelance law practices are a new phenomena, so potential clients will have to be convinced that using a freelance lawyer can be both ethical and profitable”

·       # 8 “If you wish to obtain traditional employment with a law firm in the future, they may consider your time freelancing as a ‘black mark’”

Chapter 3 is called “Getting Started” and covers some of the basic investments you should make in a freelance law practice, such as phone, email, legal research platforms, entity formation, licensing, etc.   This chapter really offers practical advice for a lawyer considering what it takes to effectively work in this type of practice.  From a technological perspective, there are more options and more ways to leverage technology than were readily available in 2011, so the reader should take some of the suggestions with a grain of salt.  Even with this in mind, freelance legal practices must effectively use technology to meet and connect with attorney clients.

Chapter 4 covers the financial aspect of a freelance law practice.  As with the previous chapter, this is chock full of practical advice.  Freelance lawyers have a wide variety of motivations for seeking this practice and have a really wide range of income requirements.  This chapter helps potential freelance lawyers evaluate their overhead, profit margins, and billing rates, and make a decision as to whether this business model will really support their financial goals.

Chapter 5 discusses marketing a freelance law practice.  As I have found to be true from my own experiences, Ms. Alderman suggests that the single most effective marketing tool is in-person networking.  She provides some great examples of networking opportunities, some of which I have taken advantage of to good effect.  This chapter also covers advertising, social media, and other aspects of marketing. 

This chapter is a little weak on using social media to connect with other lawyers.  Since this book was published in 2011, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have exploded in growth and lawyers and law firms are consistently using those platforms to advertise and communicate about their traditional law practices.  If your clients are other lawyers, you need to be where they are—both in person and online.  I have joined many Facebook groups focused on lawyers—groups on motherhood and the law, groups on women-owned firms, groups on lawyers of a particular political or religious bent.  I don’t use these contacts to “sell myself,” but they are a great source of referrals and a way to connect with other lawyers.

Chapter 7 discusses the actual practice of freelance law.  It covers client communication, file maintenance, and some of the administrative aspects of a law practice.  If you have a strong background as a solo or small firm practitioner, you probably already have a good grasp on these issues.  If you’re considering coming into freelance law from a different practice setting, this is really helpful information.  This chapter is supplemented by material in the appendix such as engagement letters and sample contracts.

Part II: Information for Hiring Lawyers

Part II shifts gears from advising freelance lawyers to advising hiring lawyers—that is, those lawyers who are interested in using freelance legal services to support their practices.  I am so glad that Ms. Alderman included this perspective in her book.  She notes that it is a ‘plain truth’ that lawyers need to be educated about the opportunities, limitations, and ethical considerations of this business model, and I have found that to be true.  I spend a good deal of time and effort in providing that education to potential clients through blog posts, articles, and presentations.

Chapter 8 focuses on the risks and rewards of using a freelance lawyer.  In my experience, time management is the biggest reason that hiring lawyers consider using a freelance lawyer.  This chapter covers the issues of practice management as well as revenue and specialization.

Chapter 9 walks a potential hiring lawyer how to find, evaluate, and hire a freelance lawyer.  It discusses screening and supervising lawyers, pay rates, and managing the hiring lawyer-freelance lawyer relationship.  Freelance legal services are an underused option for solos and small firms, and my experience is that once a lawyer establishes a relationship with a freelance lawyer they trust, they’ll keep using this service.  But they have to connect with the freelance lawyer in the first place!

Chapter 10 covers client relations between the hiring lawyer and their client.  This chapter explores disclosure to the client and the financial arrangement between the hiring lawyer and their client for freelance legal services. 

Part III: Ethical Considerations

Part III explores the ethical issues surrounding freelance legal services.  Hiring lawyers need to be educated about freelance legal services as a business model and practice setting, but they also need to be educated about the ethical issues that they need to keep in mind.  A savvy freelance lawyer will research and understand their jurisdiction’s rules or ethics opinions as they relate to various aspects of freelance legal services.  I have prepared a CLE presentation, bar association articles, and an ‘orientation letter’ for potential lawyer clients, all focused on the ethics of freelance lawyering. This section offers good, if general, advice and identifies some of the ethical concerns that both the hiring lawyer and freelance lawyer should anticipate.

Chapter 11 deals with supervising the freelance lawyer.  It offers suggestions on how to select competent lawyers, provide feedback and set parameters for legal work.

Chapters 12-15 cover the ethics issues most central to freelance legal services: confidentiality, malpractice concerns, screening for clients and preventing imputed conflicts, and billing for freelance work.  Again, lawyers should consult their state’s ethics rules, disciplinary rulings, and ethics opinions for current ethics obligations.  These chapters help lawyers identify potential issues and explains how the American Bar Association Ethics Opinions have treated various issues.

Conclusion

This book was a revelation for me.  It was a serious lightbulb moment when I realized lawyers were practicing law using this freelance model.  This book was a wonderful resource and gave me the tools and confidence I needed to make the plunge and set myself up for a growing freelance law practice.  I highly recommend it to lawyers thinking about either providing or using freelance legal services.

Stepping off the Planning Commission

For the last year, I served as an Alternate Commissioner on the Gunnison County Planning Commission. 

Why I joined the Planning Commission

I decided to apply for this Commission for a few reasons.  First, when I applied in late 2016, my law license was on inactive status while I was a full-time stay at home mom.  I wanted a professional outlet in my life and I thought the Planning Commission would be a great way to balance professional and personal obligations and interests.  Second, I enjoy working on land use, public lands, and environmental and natural resources issues.  Serving on the Planning Commission was a great way to continue to develop knowledge in those areas.  Finally, following the 2016 election, I realized I needed to be more involved in government at all levels.

Role of the Planning Commission

The Community Development Department staff and the Planning Commission considers applications for a land use change permits and determines whether they comply with the applicable components of the Land Use Resolution, Gunnison County’s land use planning document.  The staff’s job is to work with applicants to discuss the LUR, provide guidance on compliance with the LUR, and prepare reports and recommendations to the Planning Commission.  The Planning Commission’s role is to approve or deny land use change applications or make recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners for a final decision.

While I served on the Planning Commission, we considered applications from large scale commercial developments to two or three lot residential subdivisions.  Some projects were very high profile, complex, and controversial.  The editorial page of the local newspapers was often filled with letters from citizens passionately speaking out for or against a proposed project.

Gunnison County is not immune to the boom and bust economy of resort communities.  The local economy is experiencing a strong upswing and people are opening and expanding businesses and building homes.  Land use in Gunnison County is a mixed bag: some 80% of land is federal public land, we have a world class ski area, a tourism and recreation economy, traditional agriculture and ranching, a huge coal mine, oil and gas industry, and a community that values open space, mountain vistas, and unparalleled access to public lands.  The Planning Commission is tasked with balancing growth and preserving our heritage.  I know that staff and Commissioners take this responsibility very seriously. 

Lessons learned

I decided not to extend my time on the Planning Commission after my initial one-year term so that I could invest more time and energy into law practice.  Although my time on the Planning Commission was relatively brief, I learned many valuable lessons.  The Planning Commission acts in a quasi-judicial capacity and considers testimony and evidence, applies the Land Use Resolution to applications, and makes findings, conclusions, decisions, and recommendations.  This is somewhat comparable to the role of a judge in a judicial proceeding.  This gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the role of a neutral arbiter. 

I gained an appreciation for interacting with members of the public in the capacity as a public official.  During my term on the Planning Commission, I tried to hold myself to a high standard of decorum.  Regardless of the substance of the matter at hand, I try to convey my respect and appreciation for applicants and members of the public engaging in a public process.

Finally, I saw different approaches to advocacy from the many lawyers who represented applicants before the Planning Commission.  I observed effective techniques and substantive arguments and also saw some that failed to gain much traction.  Sitting on ‘the other side of the table’ was a great way to see and revaluate advocacy, not as opposing counsel, but as a decision-maker. 

I am very grateful to the Gunnison County Commissioners for giving me the opportunity to serve this incredible community in this capacity.  Now that I have gotten my feet wet in public office, I am confident that I will resume this in the future when the time is right.