November 26, 2012

Freelance attorney network offers new flexibility

Nicole Bradick, president of Custom Counsel, offers law firms a network of skilled freelance lawyers to use on an as-needed basis

Custom Counsel LLC

Address: Cape Elizabeth

President: Nicole Bradick

Founded: 2011

Contract lawyers: 25

Hourly rates: $100-$175

Contact: 200-3011

Nicole Bradick hopes to change the way law firms do business.

As many firms look to cut costs, in-house attorneys are working longer hours and even veteran lawyers are having trouble finding full-time openings.

Bradick, a part-time litigation associate at Portland's Murray, Plumb & Murray, sees those trends running in favor of her new legal temp agency, Custom Counsel. But getting established law firms to hire contract lawyers can be daunting.

"In Maine, it's a challenge because you are asking people to change the way they practice," Bradick says.

That's her goal. By gathering seasoned attorneys for specialized, project-based work, she's hoping to distinguish the company in a growing area of law that she says holds benefits for both the freelance attorneys and firms: law firms can cut costs and attorneys get more flexibility in where, how and when they work.

Increasing use of contract lawyers is a trend that's not going away, according to Ken Young, a principal at the North Carolina-based legal consulting firm Young Mayden and one of seven members of the American Bar Association's Task Force on The Evolving Business Model for Law Firms.

"There are a lot of factors at play and one thing is the desire for lawyers to have more flexible work hours and not have a full-time commitment to a law firm," Young says.

That's what brought Bradick to start exploring alternative business models for practicing law after she had her first child three years ago.

But there are benefits beyond the individual. Young says more young attorneys are out of work since the start of the recession in 2008 and, as a result, law firms have been able to try out attorneys on a contract basis, getting quality work done and testing potential hires without committing to long-term payroll costs.

In 2008, the increased use of contract lawyers prompted the ABA's ethics committee to examine the practice and establish guidelines. The result was a strong endorsement of contract lawyers as a way to lower costs and better adapt a firm's work force to its work flow.

For the most part, that contract work is geared toward basic, high-volume — sometimes mind-numbing, Bradick says — tasks like e-discovery, document review and due diligence.

But that's not where Bradick is positioning Custom Counsel.

"We do something very different and our model is far simpler," Bradick says. "I want [lawyers] who know the local rules. There's no hand-holding and no training."

Bradick seeks plug-and-play attorneys with years of experience who can turn around an appellate brief, do targeted legal research or provide topically or geographically specialized work on a tight deadline. She receives about one resume a day from lawyers inquiring about the network.

Eleanor Vuono, who is heading up Custom Counsel's Washington, D.C., affiliate that launched just over a month ago, says that level of talent is not what comes to mind for many when they think of freelance attorneys.

"When people think of freelancers, they think of big firms hiring new freelance attorneys doing document review," Vuono says. "Most all of the lawyers in our network have been practicing for five to 10 or 15 years and they can do more sophisticated legal work."

Brokering connections

A key part of Custom Counsel's model is that the company works directly with licensed attorneys and law firms, a relationship outlined by the ABA's 2008 decision.

That decision places the ultimate responsibility for contracted legal work in the hands of the hiring firm, which gives Custom Counsel geographic flexibility: its freelancers can work most places under the graces of a licensed attorney.

That's part of what brought Vuono on board and also what facilitates Custom Counsel's expansion.

Vuono's husband, whom she met while serving in the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps, is an active duty Army colonel, which means biannual moves that make establishing a legal practice difficult.

Part of Vuono's time is dedicated to lobbying for regulatory exceptions for military spouses in law and other areas. But until those changes come to pass, she says Custom Counsel has been a welcome workaround for her and other attorneys, especially in the military community, who are looking to practice.

"It's hard to maintain jobs for more than two or three years and it's because I keep moving," Vuono says. "Freelancing allows us to have some stability and grow our practice irrespective of borders and licensing challenges."

On top of that, both Vuono and Bradick share a desire for greater flexibility in their work as mothers of two young children.

"A lot of professionals want to continue to practice, but the law firm model is not conducive to having a family or any kind of work-life balance," Vuono says. "As a parent with two small children, the freedom and flexibility is incalculable."

Vuono notes that her story as a military spouse is uncommon, "but I know others who are pursuing freelance work for other reasons."

Saving money, expanding reach

In Maine, the idea for a network of skilled freelancers is not new, but Bradick is the first in the state and region to get such a network up and running, according to William Robitzek, a partner at Berman & Simmons and president-elect of the Maine Bar Association.

"One of the ideas we kicked around before [Custom Counsel] came on the scene was whether the bar association would actually try to put together lawyers who have need for research and writing and task-limited projects," Robitzek says.

That didn't happen. But Robitzek says the concept holds up and his firm has taken advantage of that freelance model.

"It's been effective at cutting costs," Robitzek says. "For many clients, that has been a top concern."

Depending on the project, hourly rates for network attorneys range from around $100 to $175. Out of that, Custom Counsel takes around 20%. Bradick has also created incentives for attorneys who hand off work to Custom Counsel, giving them a percentage of the fee.

For firms, there are possible profits in hiring contract workers as well. The ABA's 2008 ethics decision says firms can add a surcharge to contracted work, which can reduce costs to the client and still bring in a profit.

Texas has raised challenges to such surcharges, Bradick says, but most states allow the practice.

Before looking to Custom Counsel, the 18-attorney Berman & Simmons has used contract lawyers in other capacities — for longer-term stints working on a variety of projects — but Robitzek says Custom Counsel "is much more quick-hitting."

"The upside on it is that the turnaround is usually very fast and the cost is usually less than if the work is done in-house," Robitzek says. "The downside is that you lose control and you don't necessarily have that long-term relationship that you would with someone in your own firm who's doing the work."

However, for smaller firms, Robitzek says having access to contract work is "a good stopgap measure" when there is a temporary influx of work.

Gene Libby, partner at Libby O'Brien Kingsley & Champion, says that his firm tapped Custom Counsel after the departure of an associate put them in a bind: They needed research from an attorney with knowledge of Massachusetts law on a five-day deadline.

Libby says Custom Counsel connected him with such an attorney who had individual malpractice insurance, which he says made the decision to contract easier.

Since September, he says the four-person firm has used Custom Counsel three times.

"Sometimes you get hit with more work than you're able to accommodate," Libby says.

At those times, Libby says, having extra capacity can delay hiring for a position that may not end up being long term.

Vuono says she's seen the same demand for work in the D.C. area, working for small firms that are sometimes stretched to meet demands of particular clients or cases.

"I have been working for some solo practitioners who have seen this as a way to take their practice to the next level," Vuono says, "but they don't have the need to bring on another lawyer."

Virtually possible

A large part of what makes Custom Counsel possible, Vuono says, is technology. But it can also be a challenge.

"Ten years ago, an attorney could not sit at home and practice law – you would have to go to a library," Vuono says. "But with the availability of technology, I don't ever need to see the attorney for whom I work."

Bradick says that's part of what allows the company to have low overhead and keep client costs down. But she also suspects some attorneys may be reluctant to hire a freelancer based on a résumé and no personal interaction.

For Robitzek, he says he was reluctant at first over the virtual divide with a contract attorney.

"In general, lawyers — and older lawyers like me — like to see who we're dealing with rather than dealing virtually with them," Robitzek says, "but that's changing."

Overall, Robitzek says less face-to-face interaction with clients is becoming the norm.

"That's really always been a hallmark of lawyers being able to look their clients in the eye and vice-versa," he says. "That's not necessarily the rule now."

Still, Robitzek sees building personal relationships as critical to a network like Custom Counsel generating work from firms like his, especially in small state like Maine.

"A lot of the legal communities in Maine are relatively small and you can become a known entity very quickly," Robitzek says, "which means that you can have a very good or bad reputation very quickly depending on the quality of the product."

For that reason, Bradick says being tough in picking whom to bring on board is a key strategy to keep a competitive edge. So far, she's not aware of any direct competitors, but open source technology that makes much of her business possible — Google's application suite, Wordpress — lowers the bar for entry into the same market.

"We just need to keep hiring the level of talent that we have and keep getting the word out," she says.

Read more

Maine-based freelance legal services provider acquired by Ohio company


Type your comment here:

Most Popular on Facebook