Q. You’ve always worked for others but now feel ready to strike out on your own as an independent consultant. Are you cut out for it?

A. Compared with corporate workers who take direction from a boss and receive regular paychecks, consultants lead lives with much less structure and much more risk. You need to know whether you can handle a new level of uncertainty and self-direction.

Before you decide to take the plunge, understand that consulting doesn’t always provide consistent income.

“You may have the best-laid plans, but you still don’t know when you will land that first client, or when your income will become regular,” said Edith Onderick-Harvey, president of Change Dynamics Consulting, a leadership development firm in Andover, Mass. Also realize that you will need to spend a significant amount of time marketing your skills.

“Sometimes 75 percent of your time will be spent selling yourself and often that’s just networking, not even real job opportunities,” Ms. Onderick-Harvey said.

Successful consultants are very self-motivated and nimble, said Bradford Agry, founding partner of CareerTeam Partners, a career management consulting firm in New York.

“Most people are used to working in a job that has a specific description,” he said. “But your consultancy is going to unfold and change, so you need to be flexible.”

Q. How far in advance of leaving your job should you begin planning your move, and what should you do during that time?

A. Plan on six months to a year to lay the groundwork for your consulting business. Building a network of contacts is crucial during this time, said Linda Stewart, the chief executive of Epoch, which helps find projects for independent consultants in financial services. That network includes friends, colleagues, business associates, vendors and clients.

Write a business plan that establishes how revenue will be generated and how you will handle sales, marketing, finance, operations, expenses and fees, Ms. Stewart said.

Meet with an accountant and a lawyer, who can advise you about what kind of entity to form — like a limited liability company or a corporation — and about the tax implications of each. Legal advice will also help ensure that the work you do as an independent contractor doesn’t subject you to any personal liability, said Jay A. Zweig, a partner specializing in employment law with the Bryan Cave firm in Phoenix.

“One thing that is absolutely critical is to develop a standard engagement letter stating that a particular company is hiring you as an independent contractor and this is how and when you will be compensated,” Mr. Zweig said.

Q. What kind of financial cushion should you have before leaving your job to become a consultant?

A. Depending on whether you have a partner or spouse helping to pay the bills, you should have 6 to 12 months of living expenses in the bank. Make sure you have a clear understanding of both your personal and business-related financial obligations, Ms. Onderick-Harvey said.

“Working out of your home may mean low overhead costs,” she said, “but you need things like office equipment, phone lines, business stationery, I.T. services, health insurance and professional malpractice insurance.”

Q. Is it advisable to become a consultant during an economic downturn?

A. A downturn isn’t necessarily a bad time to be working on your own, provided that you have a realistic understanding of your market. But your financial cushion is even more important because it could take longer to establish a steady income stream.

Q. If you’ve been laid off, is that a good time to become a consultant?

A. If your severance package allows you the time to make the transition properly, yes. But you still need to evaluate your skills, personality type, income requirements and risk tolerance, Ms. Stewart said.

The decision to become a consultant should never be a knee-jerk reaction, said Ms. Onderick-Harvey, especially if you have a small severance package.

Q. When you are starting out, how do you obtain clients?

A. Begin with your network. Systematically send e-mail — then follow up with phone calls — to everyone you know who might need your services or be able to refer you to a potential client.

Approach larger consulting firms in your industry and let them know you are interested in working as a subcontractor when they need extra help, Ms. Stewart said. You can also work with contract staffing firms, like Kovasys or Ajilon, that can act as a broker and connect you with projects.

Q. It’s troubling that the term “consultant” often has a negative connotation. Why is that?

A. Consulting gets a bad rap because there is no barrier to entry, said Alan Weiss, president of the Summit Consulting Group, a management consulting firm in East Greenwich, R.I., and author of “Million Dollar Consulting.”

“There is a lot of schlock in the field,” he said, “but the greatest companies in the world use consultants because they know they need them.”

Except from NY Times, Oct 4, 2008. All rights reserved.