Why Freelance Creatives Should Be Like Lawyers

Posted on: Apr 26, 2016

Why creative freelancers should be more like lawyersIf, like 90% of the human race, you watched Breaking Bad, I highly recommend giving Better Call Saul a try. The series follows the (mis)fortunes of Jimmy McGill before he became Saul Goodman, and wears its comedy credentials much more visibly on its sleeve.

In the second series, Jimmy visits his older, more successful brother Chuck and merrily takes the mickey out of his profession as a lawyer with a succession of choice jokes, such as: ‘What's the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a lawyer on a motorcycle? The vacuum cleaner has the dirt bag on the inside.’

There's a huge arsenal of these jokes as lawyers are widely considered to be fair game for ridicule. I need to be careful repeating them though, as due to a strange phenomenon, a large portion of my friendship group is made up of Patent Attorneys (not sure how that happened; it started with one and they seem to be multiplying…) A world away from the litigious American courtroom perhaps, but an interesting vocation nonetheless. And one that has, unexpectedly, had a lot to teach me about freelancing.

I wrote a blog a couple of years ago called The Professionals, about how creative freelancers need to take themselves more seriously in order to be successful. That article was inspired by the many conversations I had over lunches with my good friend Bruce (one of the aforementioned attorneys), before I took the plunge into full-time freelancing. It was so refreshing to discuss the challenges of my future career with someone in a completely different industry to the one I hoped to be part of, and who could therefore offer a objective opinion.

The best advice Bruce gave me before I went freelance was the idea of 'billable hours'. As an attorney, he had strict monthly targets regarding the amount of hours he needed to bill to clients; common practice in law firms. He recommended that I adopt this strategy by calculating exactly how many hours I would need to bill per month (or week, or day) to achieve a decent income, and keeping a detailed record of how much time I was spending on each project. This advice was invaluable for several reasons:

  • So many freelancers lose track of how much paid work they’re doing. Big mistake! You may feel like the busiest bee in the hive, and the days might seem to be full of activity, but this is all meaningless if you're not invoicing anything at the end of the month.
  • Setting yourself targets for billable hours is a huge motivator. If you think you’ve had a crap day but you’ve hit your targets for the week, it gives you a boost. It really helps you to  keep on track when you feel overwhelmed with juggling all the elements of running a business.
  • Recording your billable hours helps you decide how best to spend your time. It ensures you’re not focusing too much on unpaid work e.g. admin, networking, business development. However important these things are, they’re not paying the bills! Can you afford to ‘lose’ a day to that event that’s an hour’s drive away, or do you need to give it a miss?
  • Billable hours can be used as a KPIs to help you work out how well business is going. After a year of freelancing full-time I was able to calculate my actual hourly rate vs my desired hourly rate based on my billable hours total, and the amount I’d invoiced. While my rate per hour was at the right level, I wasn’t working/billing enough of them. This gave me the push I needed to pursue more regular work, and now my number of billable hours has increased significantly.  It’s one thing to feel like you could/should do more work, it’s another to have the cold, hard facts in front of you and know it for sure!

So, creative people, don’t presume you have nothing in common with those in the corporate world with their suits and spreadsheets. Lawyers and attorneys like my friend Bruce know what their expertise is worth, they never undersell themselves, and they know the importance of billable hours. We could learn a lot from them.

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