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A Chat with Erin Shinneman - Global Adventurer, Writer, Startup Lawyer

Erin Shinneman sits on a strip of sand, preparing for her dives later that day with her ocean conservation group.  For the past six weeks, she’s been living on an Indonesian island with a population of 170. The WiFi is spotty – she’s about as far east as one can go in Indonesia – but she’s able to log on enough to communicate with her clients effectively. 

Shinneman, a startup lawyer and writer who started her career at the law firms of Chadbourne & Parke and Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian, LLP., has worked from Barcelona cafes, desert islands, and all manner of far-flung locations.  Since leaving Gunderson in 2015, she has built a career as a contract attorney and freelance writer.  She boasts a robust practice – there is often more work than there are available hours in the day – and regularly handles overflow work from high-end law firms, former clients, and others who wish to utilize her legal and writing skill sets.

It’s a dream that many of us have. We’re performing high-end legal work from a beach, or mountaintop, or any location other than a beige cubicle.  How did Shinneman make this happen?  And how might attorneys at all stages of their careers position themselves to be able to make the jump from a traditional legal model to freelance, location-independent lawslinger?   And how might you recognize if this switch is right for you?

“I was more unhappy than I was happy, but I paid my dues.” 

After two and a half years at Gunderson, Shinneman recognized that she needed a change.  While she was in law school, lawyers and career counselors told her that “you don’t say no to an offer from BigLaw, even if you’re not sure it’s the right fit for you.”  However, Shinneman recognizes how crucial it was for her to start her legal career off on the right foot: “The work I put in at Gunderson and Chadbourne provided me with a solid base,” Shinneman says. 

She took a litigation role at Chadbourne & Parke after law school graduation, then lateraled to Gunderson to focus on representing startups, a client base she enjoyed working with.  She enjoyed many aspects of a startup-focused practice: collaborating with founders and entrepreneurs and helping their nascent businesses scale upward appealed to her.  At both Chadbourne and Gunderson, Shinneman proved that she could handle large loads of responsibility.  She worked punishing BigLaw hours, and learned as much as she could.  While she recognized early in her career that she didn’t want to be on someone else’s schedule, she recognized the value of paying her dues in an AmLaw 200 environment.  Gaining control over her schedule as a more senior attorney depended on how much training she received in a traditional legal environment. 

“I quit knowing that I needed a break." 

Without a plan, Shinneman quit her job at Gunderson.  She didn’t quit with the intention of becoming a freelance contract attorney or to change careers.  Instead, she left the country.  While traveling abroad, an ex-Gunderson colleague reached out to her to see if she’d be interested in doing some writing for one of his clients.  The client wanted to provide information to their user base on how startups use equity compensation, and needed someone to write a nuts-and-bolts guide for startup employees on how to best negotiate packages for themselves.  Erin was a writer prior to law school, so this role appealed to her.  Plus, she could perform this work while traveling.    

When Shinneman arrived back to the States in 2016, she decided it was time to leverage her legal knowledge and writing background.  She updated her LinkedIn profile to reveal her writing skills as well as her legal experience, and soon was receiving offers and inquiries via her personal and professional network. After taking her first freelance assignments from law firms, she realized how marketable and reliable her skill set was, and how much of that skill set came from her formative years in the fast-paced and high-hours BigLaw environment, as well as her knowledge of what the Silicon Valley community considers to be “market” in terms of deal provisions (e.g., the percentage of stock that founders should set aside for their early employees). 

WHAT SHOULD I DO AS A LAWYER IF I WANT TO GO FREELANCE OR LOCATION-INDEPENDENT?

For junior attorneys and law students, Shinneman points to the value of top training.  Junior associates should figure out what they don’t know and think they need to know to do their job on their own, and close that “training gap”.  It’s about confidence – what sort of training do you need, as an attorney, to feel confident that you can speak with clients with minimal input from more experienced lawyers.  Junior attorneys should shadow people, particularly senior associates who do their job very well.  There is no magic number of years – Shinneman made the leap after only four and a half years in practice – it’s more of a comfort level.  She articulates the litmus test as “if you are comfortable to get on a call with a client and explain to them everything that’s going on with respect to a particular matter, you’re ready to make the leap.”

Mid-level and senior attorneys should be mindful of networking and relationships.  There is no benefit to quitting in a “blaze of glory” which can alienate you from your future network. Make the leap in a way that maximizes your ability to maintain positive relationships with your law firm colleagues and clients – it’s from this pool where many of your freelance assignments may originate.  Shinneman sourced a significant amount of work from her Gunderson contacts because she left the firm with positive relationships intact.  Also, be mindful of the two-way street nature of business, perhaps by positioning yourself as one who could refer business to your former colleagues.

If you, as a lawyer, are intrigued by how freelance work can expand the possibilities of maintaining your practice outside the four walls of a traditional office space, consider whether your training and network can sustain your business if you make the leap. 

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