The Difference between a Sole Practitioner and a Freelance Lawyer: 3 Points to Help Clear Up Some Misconceptions
As the legal profession is changing, new ways to practice law are emerging, including the option of practicing as a freelance lawyer.
While freelance lawyering is becoming more popular across the globe and in Canada, confusion still exists over what exactly a freelance lawyer is and does. The most common misconception we see? People equating freelance lawyers with “cheaper versions” of sole practitioners. This misconception has arisen in part by some solo lawyers offering their services to the public on general freelance platforms (alongside graphic designers, photographers, etc.) at extremely discounted rates creating some confusion in the freelance lawyering practice area.
To clear things up we have summarized below the three main differences between sole practitioners and freelance lawyers:
1) The Clients
The clientele is the most important distinction between a sole practitioner and a freelance lawyer.
Freelance lawyers only work for other lawyers, law firms, or in-house legal departments (normally large corporations). Unlike sole practitioners, we are not retained by the general public and do not provide legal advice directly to “non-lawyers” or what we refer to as “end-clients”. While technically we are all “sole practitioners” with our respective law societies (our governing bodies), this is only due to the absence of a “freelance lawyer” category on our annual reports, and “sole practitioner” is the closest category available to how we practice law.
So, those lawyers who offer their services on general freelance marketplace websites, are usually sole practitioners looking for work from end-clients (although not all), and they often offer their services at a lower or discounted rate. They use freelance platforms simply as another way to generate business from the public. Freelance lawyers do not look for work from the general public.
It is understandable why sole practitioners may be confused with freelance lawyers. In other industries (where freelancing or the “gig” economy has been embraced) freelancers are generally self-employed individuals, such as graphic designers or writers, who work for several clients on a project basis, as opposed to just one company. Like most lawyers (except for in-house counsel), sole practitioners also work for several end-clients as opposed to just one. However, freelance lawyers “gig” for several law firms and lawyers, as opposed to practicing as an associate or partner of one lawyer, law firm, or company. The difference, being, as noted above, that freelance lawyers work for other lawyers rather than end-clients.
2) The Nature of the Work
A sole practitioner will (generally) see the file through from beginning to end (i.e. from drafting the statement of claim to conducting the trial), unlike a freelance lawyer who may be called in to work on only one aspect of the file (i.e. to provide high level strategic advice, draft a pleading, review one contract, appear for one court appearance, etc.)
This distinction affects the length or duration of the work. For example, in civil litigation files can last for years. A sole practitioner's litigation files can be dormant for months and then blow up at a moment’s notice. Instead of juggling 100 files that may require attention at any moment, freelance lawyers focus on one or two assignments or projects at a time with clear beginnings and ends. This means our lawyer and law firm clients get 100% (or close to it) of our attention on their work project. Our lawyer clients are the ones juggling the 100 files, and we assist when they catch on fire.
Also, our lawyer clients always give us very interesting and challenging legal work. The instructions are very clear and well thought out. Having a lawyer as a client means a lot less emotional support and psychological hand-holding that sole practitioners may have to provide to their end-clients. Some of our lawyer clients have told us that they prefer providing that emotional support and hand-holding and are not that keen about the actual law. This is how, as a freelance lawyer, we can complement a solo practitioner’s or law firm lawyer’s practice. Our clients outsource the work they do not like to us, so they can focus on the work that they do.
3) Overhead and Trust Accounts
Most sole practitioners have an office, a legal assistant or law clerk, office equipment and furniture, etc. Freelance lawyers have very little overhead. We can work from anywhere, although most of us work from home, and often have paperless 'offices'. We have lawyer and law firm clients all over Canada and can communicate with them over Skype, phone, email, etc.
While some sole practitioners may also work from home and have paperless offices, one thing a sole practitioner does have (that freelancers do not) is a trust account. Sole practitioners will often take monetary retainers from their end-clients which must be kept in a trust account. Freelancers usually only bill our lawyer and law firm clients once the work is complete which eliminates the need for a trust account.
While freelance lawyers and sole practitioners have a lot in common, we do practice law in a different manner. Depending on his or her personality, a lawyer may be better suited for one type of practice over the other. Those of us at Flex prefer the freelance way of life!
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