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“Look for Attorneys Who Are Looking for You” — Freelancing Tips from a Lawyer

by Vinay Jain “Look for Attorneys Who Are Looking for You” — Freelancing Tips from a Lawyer Illustration © Dylan Meconis 2014.

Katie Lane is an attorney with a passion for helping creative people with their legal and business issues. Her website, Work Made for Hire, is full of excellent advice for freelancers and small businesses. In Part 1 and Part 2 of our interview with Katie, we talked about common legal issues freelancers face. We conclude our conversation here.

Do you feel it’s critical for freelancers or small businesses to work with an attorney from the very start?

I’m a bit of a heretic in that I think that starting out as a freelancer, you can do more for yourself than most lawyers would tell you you can. Ultimately, contracts are tools that businesses use. They’re not tools for lawyers. The contract I write as your lawyer is not one I’m going to have to live with. It is a tool for you, the business owner. You’re usually in the best position starting out to know what your needs are, because you know your business and what you’re concerned about.

I’m a bit of a heretic in that I think that starting out as a freelancer, you can do more for yourself than most lawyers would tell you you can.

That said, I encourage people to do a basic amount research in their particular areas. If copyright is important for your business you should understand the basics of copyright law. Same with trademark law, if trademarks are important to your business. If you do that research and realize you’re in over your head, call a lawyer.

So it’s important to know what kinds of questions to ask, and to try to fill gaps in your knowledge.

Yes, and what I like about Shake is that it helps people understand what they should be concerned about. I appreciate how the app walks you through those different areas and asks,  “Are you approaching this kind of relationship or that one?” I think that can be helpful. I also like Docracy as a resource, because I like the open source aspect of being able to contribute and say, “I use this contract for this reason and it was super helpful, or it wasn’t helpful,” or “I changed this section for this reason.” It’s a really helpful way for people to learn.

Too many creative people hear the message that they are not business minded, or that the business side is going to be too difficult for them. But so much of it is about relationships, and so much of what our work ends up looking like is based on what our values are.

But a contract can be as basic as an email exchange: “You’re hiring me to do X, and here’s what you get, here’s what outside of the scope, if you agree, respond and say so.” If the client isn’t willing to write back “I agree” or to sign something, one thing you can do is send them a thank you note saying something like “Thanks so much for hiring me, I’m really looking forward to this, we’re going to do this project, it’s going to be this much, and I’m looking forward to working with you.” It’s not as helpful as a contract, but that puts the onus on them to respond to how you’ve framed the project and whether they agree.

Just remember: you’re only protecting what’s written down. If you don’t mention how you’re handling the intellectual property in your thank you note, it’s not protected. That’s why a more detailed, signed contract can be so valuable.

That said, there are clearly times when hiring an attorney is the right thing to do. How do you know when that time comes?

I think it’s a good idea to start talking to an attorney when you start getting anxious about your own risks: When you’ve either built up enough business that you’re worried about leaving yourself open to too much risk, because you’re dealing with so many clients, or you realize your business is a valuable thing that is going to be your full-time gig.

Any tips for finding the right attorney?

Not all attorneys are created equal. It’s not going to be very helpful for you to talk to somebody who only does litigation, or who has a specialty in family law.

I encourage people to ask their friends. Somebody who has actually worked with that person is the best source for whether they are truly helpful. Also, look for attorneys who are looking for you. Just like freelancers, attorneys are worried about getting clients and have a niche, and there are attorneys out there who want your business – attorneys who want to work with small businesses or creative companies and individuals.

Look for attorneys who are looking for you. Just like freelancers, attorneys are worried about getting clients and have a niche, and there are attorneys out there who want your business – attorneys who want to work with small businesses or creative companies and individuals.

When you have a couple of attorneys to talk with, don’t just put all your eggs in one basket, interview them. See if you like talking to them. See how open they are in addressing your questions. See if they’re willing to have a 15 minute phone call with you to answer your questions about how they work, or if they want to charge you for that time. Gather information and then pick the person you feel the most comfortable with.  They’re going to get to know a lot about your business and probably ask you some fairly intimate questions about your goals and concerns, and you want to work with somebody who you trust.

At some point in your freelancing career, regardless of how diligent and responsible you’ve been, you’re going to have a dispute with the client. What do you do in that situation?

It’s important to really understand what you want out of the situation. That is deceptively simple, because a lot of times when we get into a dispute, we start getting concerned not just about what we’re getting in a professional sense, but also about how the other person is treating us.

I’ve talked to a lot of my clients about negotiation and management, and one thing I tell them is, don’t make up stories. Base your reactions and your estimates of your clients’ behavior on facts and what you can actually see. Fairly frequently we can get into a conflict and assume that somebody not emailing us back in time or not returning our call within a certain amount of time means x, y, or z. Or they do something and we don’t understand why they would do it that way, and so we create this reason for it. It’s really natural, it’s happening without you even noticing it. Which is why you have to pay attention to it, and ask, “What do I actually know about what’s going on? What am I interested in actually getting out of the situation?  And what is a way in which I can fulfill that interest?” Too often we spend all our time in a conflict addressing how the other person has made us feel, and not enough time trying to figure out how to address the issue that caused the conflict in the first place. You can’t conflate the two and it can be difficult to avoid that if you aren’t paying attention.

Too often we spend all our time in a conflict addressing how the other person has made us feel, and not enough time trying to figure out how to address the issue that caused the conflict in the first place. You can’t conflate the two and it can be difficult to avoid that if you aren’t paying attention.

If you focus on what you’re really interested in when addressing a conflict, it gives you a roadmap. Whereas if you just sort of fly into it and try to deal with it as quickly as possible, you might get bogged down in things that seem really important, but are actually just red herrings. It’s really important if you’re working with a lawyer not just to tell them what you’re interested in – what your preferred outcome is – but what you don’t want to deal with. If you want to make sure you stay away from court, for example, it’s important that your attorney know that, because it’ll affect what they advise you to do.

This is not to say that your response in a conflict is going to be weak because you are being thoughtful. It’s just going to ensure that you are spending your energy in the wisest possible manner.

Anything else we haven’t covered that creative freelancers and small business owners ought to know?

They need to know that they can do it. You can start your own business and take care of yourself. It is absolutely within your wheelhouse. Too many creative people hear the message that they are not business minded, or that the business side is going to be too difficult for them. But so much of it is about relationships, and so much of what our work ends up looking like is based on what our values are.  You’re in the best position to know what your values are and how you want to work. So as a creative person you absolutely have the skills to run your own business. It’s just going to be different from the way someone with, say, a banking background runs their business. That doesn’t mean either one is better or worse than the other, it just means that’s it’s different.

photo of Vinay Jain
Vinay Jain

As Chief Legal Officer, Vinay serves as Shake's general counsel, is responsible for the company's legal contracts and content, and leads efforts to educate consumers and small businesses about the law.

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