THE BLOG
04/26/2016 11:17 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2017

How Modern Lawyers Are Doing More as Consultants

Legal services aren't as cut and dried as they used to be. In fact, lawyers are increasingly taking a newer angle for their career: the position of consultancy.

Most lawyers fresh out of school go to work for a firm. Sometimes, this means a small-firm partnership between attorneys with a similar background; sometimes, they join major corporations that have dozens or even hundreds of lawyers operating behind the scenes.

Either way, when most people seek legal services, these are the organizations they typically consider first because that's where lawyers most frequently gravitate. But more experienced lawyers are starting to veer from this setup in favor of a more independent consulting approach.

The Legal Consultant

The position of a legal consultant is straightforward but flexible. Some of the shifts in environment and responsibilities associated with the transition may be obvious, but the changes are somewhat based on the circumstances.

Each attorney who goes into legal consulting will get to choose the responsibilities he or she takes on. Some of these include:

  • Advising clients on legal matters
  • Developing strategies for clients to follow if they wish to minimize legal risk
  • Identifying opportunities or scenarios where legal action should be pursued
  • Drafting and/or verifying legal documents

Typically, legal consultants either charge on an hourly basis or require some kind of retainer fee for their services. This is also up to the consultant's discretion.

Advantages for the Consultant

Legal professionals who leave a firm or corporation to start their own independent operation enjoy several distinct advantages:

  • More money. This is debatable and it varies, but the bottom line is, legal consultants have the potential to make more money than they could at a legal firm. Legal firms often put their attorneys on a static salary, regardless of workload or performance. That may be ample, but it tends to have a solid limit. It's also hard to maintain an upward momentum if you try to build a career from inside a gigantic firm.
  • Few startup costs. Most businesses require a substantial injection of capital to get things going, but since you'll mostly be selling yourself, startup capital isn't as much of an issue. If you've ever been interested in starting your own business, this is a good one to pursue. Of course, the flip side is that you'll have to build your business in other ways. You'll rely on networking and referrals to get most of your business, at least in the beginning, and that tends to require a lot of upfront effort to establish your reputation.
  • More control. You can take on any clients you like, any cases you find appealing, and any set of responsibilities you prefer. If there's anything you "have" to do, you can outsource it to someone else for a pre-established rate.
  • More flexibility. In addition to choosing your work environment and objectives, you'll also have more flexible hours and personal requirements. You can work from home, take days off, and schedule tasks at your leisure. You can increase or reduce your workload, depending on your current needs and abilities, and change things whenever you want.

Of course, there are some disadvantages that accompany these. You'll lose some of the stability a firm offers, especially when it comes to salary in the early stages of your consultancy. You'll also encounter situations in which you'll need more expertise or greater resources, in which case you'll have to enlist the services of another lawyer or firm, at a cost.

Advantages for Clients

But there are some key advantages for clients in need of advice without the budget or desire to pursue a legal firm:

  • Lower costs. Depending on the situation, it's likely that the consultant will end up costing most clients less money. Law firms often set higher fees due to their bureaucratic nature and mission to develop long-term engagements. According to legal consultant Gordon J. Dykstra, "Lawyers are costly because lawyers insist on control and they, or their help, do all that they think a claim or defence [sic] needs to process it through the courts. Lawyers are also too costly because lawyers charge for lots of time spent on tasks that almost any person can do." With a consultant, a client can work on an hourly basis, focusing only on the tasks that a client truly needs, therefore maximizing efficiency and minimizing cost.
  • Room for negotiation. Clients have a bit more room for negotiation with an individual consultant. This doesn't mean they'll necessarily be able talk the consultant down on price, but they can work together to find better patterns of engagement or request alternative services. Clients can also shop around to find the perfect consultant for their needs.
  • Personal trust. A client can work with individuals within a legal firm, but consultancy offers a higher degree of personal engagement that people are less apt to find in a bigger outfit. The level of potential trust can be priceless.

Ultimately, the growth of legal consultants is a good thing for the general legal environment. Law firms may still boast of some major advantages, and they remain an essential component of the legal ecosystem, but legal consultants can help bring greater balance and provide more rounded services for the clients who choose them.

If you're currently working for a major firm and you're less than satisfied with the conditions, why not think about carving your own niche as a consultant?