Contract Lawyer Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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Get the truth about a contract lawyer's salary, education, licensing requirements and career prospects. Read job descriptions and see the pros and cons of entering this field.
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Pros and Cons of a Contract Lawyer Career

Contract lawyers work on a temporary basis for law firms and individual lawyers who need additional assistance. Read on to see more pros and cons of working as a contract lawyer.

Pros of a Contract Lawyer Career
Ability to balance work and personal life by choosing workload*
Ability to choose projects*
May be able to work from home*
Many staffing agencies exist to locate jobs*

Cons of a Contract Lawyer Career
No job security*
Pay is often lower than full-time positions**
Fewer resources are available (supplies, databases and meeting spaces may not be provided)*
Must spend time finding work*

Sources: *Berkley Law, **Hastings College of Law

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Contract lawyers, also called temporary or project attorneys or document reviewers, work on a temporary, contractual basis. Work assignments can vary greatly. You may work on a short or long-term basis for a large or small law firm or an in-house legal agency. Contract work is often completed by recent law school graduates. Working in this field allows you to gain experience in the field and earn money while seeking permanent employment.

Often, contract lawyers are hired to perform document reviews on large cases. This work entails analyzing, organizing and composing documents. You may also be employed by an individual attorney or small firm who needs a temporary associate. Work in these settings can vary based on the legal specialty of your employer but generally includes advocating for and representing clients, performing research and composing documents.

Job Prospects and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the average hourly wage for lawyers in all fields was about $5464 (or around $133,000 annually) in May 2014. However, contract lawyers may earn less than this amount. According to Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, large law firms employing document reviewers pay an hourly wage that ranges from $25-$45. The exact wages you may earn as a contract attorney can vary based on the type of project and employing organization. Employment for lawyers in all fields is expected to increase 10% from 2012-2022, according to the BLS.

Education Requirements

To work as a contract attorney, you'll need a Juris Doctor (JD) and membership in your state's bar association. You need to first earn a bachelor's degree, pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and attend law school, which - in total - can take seven years or more. After graduating from law school, you must pass your state's bar exam to become fully licensed.

In order to have success as a contract attorney, you must be resourceful in order to find work. Temporary staffing agencies may help you find employment, but many contract lawyers do their own legwork. You'll need strong research, writing and communication skills as well as a knack for analytical thinking and problem-solving. You may also need to allocate your own resources, such as meeting spaces, supplies and research databases, if they are not provided by your employer.

What Employers Are Looking For

In addition to a JD and good standing with the state bar association, employers often seek candidates who are flexible and have some level of experience and knowledge of their field. Take a look at the real job postings below from April 2012 to see what employers were seeking in contract lawyers.

  • In Boston, contract attorneys are needed for both short and long-term document review positions. Applicants should have experience in this area or a background in litigation.
  • A large financial institution in New York City is seeking a temporary trade attorney to handle credit, financing and trade risk matters. The accepted candidate will work in-house.
  • In Missouri, a long-term contract position is available at a facilities management organization. Contract workers will prepare documents, review data, gather evidence and communicate with other employees. Travel is required.
  • A medium-sized law firm in Boston is hiring a contract attorney with five or more years of experience to work on health care, licensing and real estate cases.
  • In Milwaukee, an insurance company seeks a contract trial attorney with 3-5 years of experience. This job requires candidates to represent clients in tort, injury and other cases.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

Contract with a Temp Agency

One way to get hired as a contract lawyer is to enlist the help of a staffing or temporary legal agency. You can submit your resume and application materials to one or several of these organizations. Legal staffing agencies help temporary employees find jobs at firms and businesses seeking such assistance. Larger firms often have more work opportunities, while smaller ones may be able to allocate specialized work.

Gain Additional Licensure

You can also stand out by gaining licensure in more than one state. Since each state has its own bar exam, you will likely need to pass multiple exams. By having the ability to work in more than one state, you'll appeal to employers who are handling cases that cross state lines, and you'll diversify the pool of firms and businesses to which you can apply.

Alternative Career Paths

Paralegal

If the fear of debt and the reluctance to spend seven or more years in school turns you away from a career as a contract lawyer, consider working as a paralegal. In this career, you'll assist attorneys by managing files, conducting research and drafting documents. To enter this position, you generally need an associate's degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor's degree in a related field. The median annual salary for paralegals was $47,000 in May of 2011, according to the BLS. Employment in this field is expected to grow at a faster-than-average rate of 18% between 2010 and 2020.

Freelance Writer

If you want the freedom of working your own hours and choosing your projects, working as a freelance writer may be for you. Workers in this field develop original content for publications, advertisements and other sources. A bachelor's degree is generally needed to work as a freelance writer, although qualifications can vary based on your clientele and the strength of your portfolio. In 2011, the median annual salary for writers and authors was around $56,000. Unfortunately, this career field has a slower-than-average predicted job growth rate at 6% from 2010-2020.

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