Can I be a writer/lawyer?
May 12, 2010 2:46 PM   Subscribe

On-the-side writing opportunities? That are paid? I'm a lawyer working in global health. My interests are wide-ranging.

I'm a lawyer, in the early stages of my career, working in the HIV/AIDS and clinical research world. I'm interested in whether there might be freelance writing opportunities for someone like me.

Here's what I'd like to accomplish:
- make some money (I don't expect much)
- broaden my resume, possibly positioning myself for future policy-focused jobs
- explore other interest areas

Interest areas:
- global health (not limited to HIV/AIDS issues)
- politics
- freedom of speech
- international relations
- international development

The above list is not at all exclusive. The truth is, I'm willing to write about almost anything if it can help me get my foot in the door. Assuming that there is such a door.

Relevant experience:
- a blog that focused on the US presidential election
- academic writing (published 2 articles on China's censorship of the Internet and 1 on clinical research in developing countries)
- editor of a legal journal
- appellate clerkship (not federal), which means I drafted opinions for the judge
- a few articles published in school papers during undergrad and law school

So, the questions:
- Are there freelance opportunities for someone like me? Am I wasting my time?
- If there are, where do I look? How do I market myself?

I have no idea whether I'm attractive as a writer-for-hire. That said, I'm eager for opportunities and open to suggestions.
posted by ihavepromisestokeep to Work & Money (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Another detail: I'm in Washington, DC.
posted by ihavepromisestokeep at 3:00 PM on May 12, 2010

FWIW, when I was in law school I found a gig writing case summaries for a fixed fee through craigslist. I was able to do it pretty quickly, so it was profitable. I don't use it on my resume though, it was basically just a moonlighting job that I did for cash. I found it through a monster craigslist RSS feed that I put together that was made up of writing gigs in a number of different cities, that I would search every few days for things that looked interesting. I'm not sure if that's of any help or not.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:06 PM on May 12, 2010 maintains a global poverty blog (among other issues) that is fairly interesting, and they are hiring freelance, paid bloggers.
posted by quadrilaterals at 3:53 PM on May 12, 2010

There are many publications you can write for as a lawyer, but most won't pay. Check your local bar association, the american bar association, state bar association, the American Lawyer, and various law reviews/journals in your area.
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:17 PM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might have to do a little of it pro bono before you could get hired for it, but it seems like DC is full of NGO's that need grant writers. It's great experience to have for all sorts of jobs, and would expose you to different policy issues.
posted by ldthomps at 5:49 PM on May 12, 2010

- make some money (I don't expect much)

Forget this, and you will be fine and - I'm assuming you're a good writer, here - you will get lots of opportunities.

Also, remember with making money the pathetic fees you will get will not be worth the hassle of doing tax at the end of the year and declaring it, trying to claim stuff related to it, etc etc etc. Truly, it won't be.

How to do it?

1. Where do you read the kind of stuff you want to write. Look at the publications that you think write good content in this area, that stylistically would be a good fit for you (I use the term "publication" advisedly, it could be a blog, a magazine, whatever; go for quality and simpatico, not if they pay/are glossy etc).

2. Develop an article summary, if not the article.

3. Email the editor, say:

"Hi, I'm so-and-so, would you be interested in a piece on X for your magazine/blog/sign-painted-on-a-donkey? I'm developing/have written a piece talking about X and how it's developing in context of A, B and C, and what the future holds with the introduction of D to the space [or whatever, catchy summary of the piece is key here]. I was able to interview x about it, and I've attached it for you to look at (if you're able)

"In the past I have written for H, J, I about topics K, L and M ( link to the articles _if they are good_. Personally, I wouldn't add your blog to this list unless you're writing for a veerrrrry casual publication. No offense at all, but it's just not serious enough. You're trying writing articles here, not op-eds.) I'm currently practicing as a lawyer in N.

"Feel free to get in touch if you're interested via phone or email, thanks very much for yourtime.

Do not mention money or payment. Let them mention it or not. Again, no offense, but you're not really qualified to be paid yet; that comes later when you have a track record, and are writing for the bigger guns. Money really is not the outcome to look for when you go into freelance journalism.

You will be surprised how far a decent piece + that email will take you. I secured about 70% of my new work when I was a freelancer precisely with emails like that, and I never got a bad response. Sometimes I got a "we're not interested in that particular topic right now, but we are interested in you generally speaking" or "could you do something like this instead?" kind of response, but I never got a no. Part of this was selection, part of this was having something to show people, part of it was having a track record, and part of it was not wasting people's time.

If you are a good writer with interesting ideas, there will *always* be fora for your work; many writers are shitty, fabricating, blowhards. Quiet, competent, interesting professionalism is always rewarded in this sector. Editors are desperate for good content. They may not pay, but the rewards of this are not material.

Context: freelance writer for five years, subsequent career in PR, now in internal comms.
posted by smoke at 6:21 PM on May 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

But also note: quiet, competent, interesting professionalism is hard work. I still freelance super-casually because not depending on the money is a good send, and I can develop pieces at the pace they deserve, which means stronger, more interesting work for me.

However, sometimes it can take literally months as I squeeze it in around the rest of my life. Proper freelance writing should not be like writing a blog, unless you either have an amazing blog, or you want to be like 80% of the other freelancers out there, churning out lazy prose for a few pathetic treats and a tiny cadre of uncritical supporters.
posted by smoke at 6:25 PM on May 12, 2010

Unfortunately, this is about the worst time possible to start work as a freelance writer if you want to make a living. For one, there are tens of thousands of experienced journalists out of work.

Second, horrible places like Demand Studios are paying absurdly low rates of something like 10 "articles" (each of several hundred words) for $300, so unless you write with no research and type like a demon, you aren't going to make any money and the product will predictably be lousy.

Even big blogs like HuffingtonPost pay nothing at all except to a few staffers-- and most of the thinktanks hire big name/ already known people as fellows and have them write for them.

That said, having an area of specialization like HIV/AIDS is helpful-- you might pitch places like Poz mag or other AIDS-focused publications. For some reason, for a long time I was seeing ads for writers or editors on AIDS vaccines--but don't know if this is one organization having high turnover or what. Places like can help.

Being a lawyer also matters-- legal publications are good places to pitch and you may have sources that other writers don't.

And, freelancing has always been insanely competitive, so it may not be that much worse than usual and at least you have the chance of getting exposure now that people didn't in the past.

Definitely keep your day job though.
posted by Maias at 6:46 PM on May 12, 2010

Want to get paid? Stick to law.
posted by ovvl at 7:35 PM on May 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm going to make a pact with myself to stay out of the freelance questions but here are one or two quick ideas.

OP, how much of the science do you understand for HIV/clinical trials? Can you read primary journal articles and summarize the material in a paragraph or so?

If you can do that, I would suggest that you contact med ed companies. Some med ed companies have their writers develop academic articles for publication in medical journals, whereas others may just create medical education type manuscripts to teach physicians. If you can freelance for a company like this, the work comes to you over and over again. It can be very interesting (YMMV, but you get a chance to learn what is new in the field and sometimes cutting edge studies....before the material is published).

They do pay you (and no not at those astronomically low rates or for free). If you specialize, I don't think you will have competition, but YMMV. I'll drop the name of the name of a company that I think may be a good fit for you into your memail (they exclusively write content on HIV)

In addition (I have no experience with this last part, just an idea) - have you looked into writing continuing legal education material? You have the perfect background for it (you already have that specialty -law)
posted by Wolfster at 7:38 PM on May 12, 2010

I've heard good things about, although I haven't yet signed up with them myself.
posted by corey flood at 8:18 PM on May 12, 2010

I don't know if they take on free-lancers, but I'd look into any opportunities with the publisher BNA - they're based out of Arlington, and they have a number of publications that seem to dovetail nicely with your current field.
posted by dicaxpuella at 9:48 AM on May 13, 2010

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