Law Practice

A New View, Part 2: E-Discovery Changes Have Some Seeing a Career in Document Review


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Photo of Tracy Drynan by David Fonda

Tracy Drynan was a prosecutor in Colorado after graduating from the University of Denver College of Law in 2002. In 2004 she moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where she expected to find work with some kind of nongovernment organization. “I came out here to save the world,” she says.

But like so many new lawyers who find themselves in big cities with so many other new lawyers, Drynan became a document reviewer. Seven years later, she’s still in the D.C. area, and still reviewing documents.

The notable thing about this story is that Drynan isn’t unhappy. She’s built a career for herself that is flexible, challenging and remunerative—in document review.

Expect to see more Tracy Drynans.

Lately there’s been plenty of ink spilled about changes in the document review industry that affect those doing the reviews. The 2010 Socha-Gelbmann Electronic Discovery Survey found the e-discovery market, where document reviewers still play a major role, growing and maturing: It was a $2.8 billion market in 2009, 10 percent bigger than in 2008, and moving away from straight document review toward information management and efficiency. And the New York Times reported in March how these movements are playing out—document review jobs as we’ve known and hated them are now drying up, with lawyers replaced by lower-cost software.

These changes also appear to be coming along with a professionalizing of the attorneys doing the review work that is left—work that is becoming more complex, interesting, flexible, stable and desirable. It is work that is rewarding in ways that might have come as a surprise not too long ago.

“Five, 10 years ago you would just hire a team of lawyers. They would do the review, they would leave, go to the next project,” says Geoff Wilcox, Columbus, Ohio-based executive vice president for e-discovery provider Black Letter Discovery. “What I’ve seen is the emergence of some specialties, a growth path within document review.”

SHARPER SKILLS

“We really want to work to encourage and build professionalism in the practice,” Wilcox says. “By treating this as an important part of the profession, it creates a rewarding work atmosphere that creates better work product.”

David Perla, New York City-based co-founder and co-CEO of legal outsourcing firm Pangea3, agrees. Pangea3 opened a facility in suburban Dallas in June; now there are about a dozen full-time lawyers. Perla expects to have 40-50 full-time lawyers on staff by the end of the year. He doesn’t make the lawyers’ salary public, but says the pay scale is competitive.

Document reviewers at Pangea3 gain subject-matter expertise, he says, and they gain management experience and have client contact. Also, they’re hired full time.

“Today it’s both an industry and, maybe more important, it’s a career,” Perla says. He says Pangea3 has received about 300 resumés so far.

Drynan isn’t sending her resumé; she does her document reviewing from home. Drynan is part of a small group of reviewers who have become the go-to temp team for a law firm’s e-discovery group (she declines to say which firm).

Drynan earns a salary that is above what a first-year big-firm associate might earn, but less than what a senior associate is likely taking home. Her team, which can review tens of thousands of documents in a day, goes beyond merely clicking through documents; they get into the meat of what they’re reviewing, and part of their value is their close familiarity with the cases.

“We’ll explore the issues in the documents and present to the client, to the firm: ‘These are the things you aren’t aware of right now with your documents,’ ” says Drynan.

Getting over the stigma of document reviewing isn’t easy, but she’s found a niche that suits her in this evolving industry.

“I enjoy the work. I love the people I work with,” she says. “Sometimes the agencies don’t take the attorney seriously. Then the attorneys themselves don’t feel like professionals, don’t perform at a professional level. That reinforces the cycle. Because now I work closely to the firm, I get to do things that are more intellectually stimulating. It’s not dull and boring. I’m committed to our process into the future.”

Of course the professionalization of document review hasn’t gone completely mainstream yet. Allison Hickey Regan, assistant director of the University of Houston Law Center’s Career Development Office, says she’d had some recent grads in her office asking about document review work. But no current students have come in to talk about their happy future in e-discovery.

“I don’t see law students at this point in time having that on their radar screen,” Regan says.

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