Describing freelance legal writing, Writers Work makes a very good point. It describes it as “a broad field that can encompass several different writing styles.” Why?
The fact is that this type of writing encompasses very specific legal themes. This includes the writing of motions, memorandums, and briefs for any specific legal case. This also includes summarising laws and case laws and legal trends. Lawyers themselves use such material in preparing cases. And then there is legal correspondence, which is in many cases oriented towards the commercial market.
On the other hand, legal writing can be of a more general nature. That includes writing for online sites practically any legal business has. This writing includes preparing the sites themselves, keeping it current (blogs, reports, press releases). Such writing also goes beyond online. Each legal business needs to have articles present in other media as well as preparing other promotional material (booklets, pamphlets, video material).
Of course, in many cases, big legal firms have their own writers for the very specific legal writing (often called ‘brief writing’). Very often, that job is delegated to the firm’s paralegals. But, what happens when the firm is small, and/or is overburdened with the writing that needs to be done?
Also, even the larger law firms do not wish to permanently employ writers for the more general writing they need in their work. In all these cases they will most probably resort to freelance agencies and writers.
In most of those instances, law firms and entities that require legal writing will resort to either specialized agencies or freelancers that have a track record of working on legal matters. This includes both the specific legal writing or the more general writing they would need.
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What subjects can freelance legal writing cover?
The Balance Careers makes a handy list of subjects that are covered by legal writers, freelance or otherwise:
- Feature writers, that will create articles on all legal topics, both for online media and print.
- Web writers and legal bloggers, i.e. writers that will research, write, and ed web content. These would include legal and general online publications, law firm websites, and online legal websites.
- News analysts – reporters and legal correspondents that would prepare analytical material on the latest legal news and trends.
- Corporate writers who will “develop, write, edit, and design a broad range of business materials for the legal industry. This includes “press releases, brochures, leaflets, web copy, newsletters, profiles, marketing copy, business letters, presentations, reports, white papers, and academic materials.”
- Legal analysts, that summarise case law, work on news summaries, and “analyze industry events for online legal information vendors.”
- Brief writers who “perform research and draft briefs, motions, memorandums, and other legal documents for law firm clients on a contract basis.”
- Legal editors – specialized editors that tackle “copyediting, content editing, and proofreading for a variety of legal publications.”
This just shows the wide scope of writing that even a small legal firm requires. For the most part, even the larger firms will resort to engaging freelance legal writing to cover all their writing needs.
In most instances, particularly if the writing they require is of a more complex legal nature, such firms will contact agencies and freelancers that specialize in legal writing. In other cases, like blogging (“blawgging”) and PR material, they would contact agencies and/or freelances with a more general spectrum of capabilities. Still, a certain track record of working on legal matters will be preferred.
What knowledge and qualities will potential clients look for in freelance legal writers?
As Writers Work (above) notes, “the legal industry has its own language.” To that effect, it is no wonder that when they require the services of freelance legal writers, potential clients will look that those writers have some form of legal background. If it is not legal education, that it is a qualified experience in freelance legal writing. The longer, the better.
Usually, the best manner to check this is by taking a look at the writing portfolios of freelance writing agencies/writers. This is the writing field where such portfolios carry specific weight. Law firms are a very competitive branch and recommendations from one firm to another are not such a common occurrence.
By looking at such a portfolio, prospective clients will look at a number of possible ‘red flags’. For one, this includes the quantity of legal writing such freelancers have under their belt.
On the other hand, they will look at the quality of this work. This particularly concerns the quality of their research and how well-versed they are in legal linguistics. For example “there are strict rules about the titles that can be used.”
Legal writers would have to “avoid using terms like ‘best’ or ‘top’ when referring to attorneys and law firms. Legal writers themselves also “cannot offer legal advice in writing and may need to include a disclaimer on the pieces they write.”
Another element potential clients will certainly look for is the respect of discretion and confidentiality. In practically all instances, no matter how broad or general the matter is, they will request the signing of special confidentiality agreements. These include a number of elements. From what information could go public to how the source documents are handled during the writing process.
More on freelance legal writing qualities
In many cases, legal language can seem complicated and convoluted, particularly to the uninitiated. But even when writing for a specific legal audience, legal writers “must have an excellent grasp of the stylistic and mechanical aspects of writing .” (The Balance Careers) Of course, this includes an excellent grasp of (English) grammar and usage. “They must be able to express ideas in a clear, organized, concise, and logical manner and meet aggressive deadlines.”
Another extremely important element is superior research skills. This would mean that the prospective legal writer should have “the ability to synthesize, draft, and edit complex information.” In many cases, they will be asked to “ interview expert sources as well as conceive unique story ideas or fresh approaches to evergreen topics.”
As far as legal editors are concerned, they “must have excellent knowledge of grammar, usage, punctuation, and style, as well as a keen attention to detail and the ability to meet tight deadlines. Knowledge of legal terminology is also essential.”
Freelance legal writing for online purposes also requires some other specific skills and knowledge. This includes being familiar and having experience with things like HTML and SEO. Also, “meta-strategy development, keyword research, and online content management systems.” Why?
Simply because legal writing in any shape and form requires immaculate precision. Even the smallest mistake, a comma, or a full stop in the wrong place can often have legal consequences.
As Academic Writer Jobs puts it, “ law firms and individual lawyers require legal writers to write the professional and competitive written content for their websites.” Legal firms need to have their sites accessible 24/7 for their current and potential clients, but for general online access.
Outsourcing legal writing to another legal person or a law firm?
In a number of cases, potential clients that require freelance legal writing will actually opt to engage another lawyer or a law firm. This is often a case with solo legal practitioners or small firms. They would do this particularly when they require voluminous research or brief writing.
Even larger law firms resort to this practice with one precious commodity in mind – time. As Attorneys At Work, notes, “lawyers aren’t always in control of their own schedules. Deadlines — whether set by statute, court rule, or judicial fiat — are ever-present. Frequently, it seems that everything must be done at once.”
When opting for this solution, the above source points out to five important factors:
- Outsourcing legal research and writing can help a firm’s bottom line. With one exception, all of the bar associations that have addressed the issue (including, most notably, the American Bar Association) have determined that a lawyer may add a surcharge to a freelance lawyer’s fees. In other words, make a profit on work performed by a freelance lawyer — as long as the total charges to the client are reasonable.
- “If you are making a profit on work a freelance lawyer performs, to comply with ethics requirements, you must bill the freelance lawyer’s services as a fee, rather than as a disbursement.
- The defining characteristic of the relationship between a hiring firm and a freelance attorney is the hiring firm’s continued responsibility for rendering competent legal services to the client. “
- A freelance lawyer who is performing legal research or writing services need not be admitted in the same state.
- The hiring firm/lawyer should obtain a client’s informed consent before hiring a freelance lawyer.
Financing and finding freelance legal writing
Due to its specific nature and all the elements it involves, freelance legal writing does not come cheap. It formally falls into the category of technical writing.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of these technical writers and editors is expected to grow 8% between 2018 and 2028. In 2018, the median salary was $71,850 per year—or around $34 per hour. Engaging another lawyer or a firm for say, brief writing (above), is mostly in the higher part of this scale.
On the other hand, finding sources for freelance legal writing might not be such a problem, particularly online. These include more general writing sources like Upwork or BunnyStudio but also those more specialized like in the list that can be found here. One thing though remains certain. Freelance legal writing for many can turn out to be a necessity they cannot do without. This involves research, precision, and time. These are all the factors any legal firm always has in mind.