Photo by Duane Tinkey
Photo by Duane Tinkey

Melinda Ellwanger has spent much of her career as a lawyer working for a pacesetter in the profession, Roxanne Conlin.

Not surprising then that Ellwanger is charting new territory in the Greater Des Moines legal community by setting off on her own as a freelance attorney for hire.

Ellwanger was a Drake University law student when she began clerking for Conlin, among the first women appointed as a U.S. attorney in the country, a member of the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame, and a magnet for big cases that focus on individual rights.

Two years ago, Ellwanger decided to entertain her entrepreneurial muse and start a practice that requires little more than a home office, an Internet connection and lots of contacts in the legal community – and no small amount of fearlessness.

“Frankly, she has always been fearless by nature,” Conlin said.

Freelance attorneys are not new to the profession, but they are unique to Greater Des Moines. Nationally, the trend of independent attorneys offering their services to corporate firms gained steam in 2010, according to one national legal observer, after large firms began outsourcing work in an effort to cut costs during the economic downturn.

Individual freelancers also face some new competition in the form of larger companies that offer routine legal services. Thomson Reuters purchased legal outsourcing firm Pangea3 two years ago, and at the time said it planned to expand the company’s presence in the United States.

Pangea3 is headquartered in Mumbai, India, where it has 650 employees and has shown revenues growth of 20 percent annually, with revenues last year of about $1 billion.

Thomson Reuters said at the time of the acquisition that it would provide services to large law firms and corporate legal departments.

In Iowa, where clients tend to want to look their lawyer in the eye, such services have yet to catch on.

That face-to-face mindset could work to Ellwanger’s disadvantage, too, said Anjela Shutts, an attorney with Whitfield & Eddy P.L.C. and president-elect of the Polk County Bar Association.

“The legal profession in Iowa is fairly traditional; change is hard for us,” she said. “But it’s also hard for the client.”

Ellwanger knows she is trying to crack a tradition-bound market.

“Traditional professions can be slow to adapt to something new,” she said. “This brings a new approach to the table.”

On the other hand, it didn’t take long for law firms to see the value in her work.

“I was pretty busy from the start,” Ellwanger said. She believes her practice is close to the point where she can bring other attorneys into the firm.

At Conlin Law, Ellwanger focused on practicing primarily in the areas of employment discrimination, professional malpractice, civil rights, personal injury and products liability.

In her private practice, she offers services on an hourly basis, primarily to smaller firms that might lack the resources to write a last-minute brief, for example. Other services are research, preparing appeals, prepping attorneys for depositions, document management, client intake and investigations.

“What makes Mindy unique is that she is right here. She has a fabulous work ethic and she can do work accurately. She is just a very gifted writer,” Conlin said.

Ellwanger specializes in trial preparation and said she prefers working behind the scenes. She has little desire to argue a case before a jury, after working for one of the best in the business.

“There is just a lot of behind-the-scenes work that I can do,” Ellwanger said.

Much of her research is accomplished courtesy of a subscription to Westlaw, an online legal research service that is owned by Thomson Reuters.

Ellwanger said she also understands that she must be her own watchdog in terms of abiding to long-held professional standards regarding conflicts of interest and attorney-client confidentiality.

Large firms often use computer software to track clients and guard against conflicts.

Ellwanger keeps a client list that she checks before accepting a job and in order to avoid conflicts.

There are practical business concerns to be navigated, also.

A national legal publication has chided law schools for not anticipating the proliferation of freelance lawyers and offering courses that would prepare students for going it alone.

Ellwanger has learned business management largely by trial and error. There are an increasing number of online forums and a LinkedIn group for freelance lawyers that cover many of the pitfalls of freelancing.

She also has had to learn how to market the business.

Ellwanger has a website, www.freelancelawyeriowa.com, she has joined LinkedIn, and she attends a range of attorney functions, such as trial lawyer conventions. In addition, she has had the benefit of working with Conlin for more than a decade.

Paige Fiedler, of the four-attorney firm Fiedler & Timmer P.L.L.C., was a clerk in Conlin’s office at the same time Ellwanger worked there. Now, her firm is one of Ellwanger’s clients.

“The advantage Melinda brings is that she is an experienced lawyer and the quality of her work is a lot better than somebody who is just starting out,” Fiedler said. “It’s sure nice to be able to call somebody who you have confidence in.”

After two years, Ellwanger is getting her feet on the ground.

“I’m hitting my stride, and I’m feeling more comfortable with it,” she said.