Business of Law
Down in the Data Mines
A tale of woe from the basement of legal practice
Posted Dec 1, 2008 7:40 PM CST
The following is one New York City lawyer’s account of working in document review. His name and identifying details are being withheld because, though it’s a job he hates, it’s a job he needs.
Usually when I get to work in the morning in Midtown Manhattan, I am the only one in the lobby waiting for the elevator to go down. I work in the building’s annex: no windows, no view, no health insurance and no respect.
I started out as an eager young associate at an East Coast firm but was laid off. With massive law school debt in a lopsided market, I’ve become a contract attorney at a major law firm. Placed an entire building away from partners and associates, I review electronic documents related to whichever case needs the manpower.
Dress is business casual, but I can go an entire week without running into any actual firm employee (and certainly I’m not trusted with client contact), so I often breach the rules and wear jeans and a T-shirt. My favorite shirt is from my law school, worn mainly to mock the school’s career services center that continues to provide misleading, incomplete employment statistics to prospective students.
I make $35 an hour for the first 40 hours and $52.50 for each hour thereafter. Averaging 60 hours per week, I make a pretty good living for reading e-mail. A contract attorney working those hours can earn $100,000 a year. But there are no new skills acquired and no career advancement. Still, small firms in the New York area offer starting salaries below $50,000. State clerkships pay in the lows 40s. So this is the only way for many attorneys to survive financially.
Contract positions often last less than a month. You register with staffing agencies; recruiters then place you in projects at major firms, accepting a generous portion of your check in exchange. The buzz around reviews is that a firm bills out an attorney at $180 an hour and pays the temp agency $60 per; the agency, in turn, pays the attorney $40. Ranking somewhere below paralegals and above the cleaning crew, thousands of contract attorneys are making ends meet in this subsection of the legal industry.
Today, like always, I read e-mails from the client’s computer network, then code each according to its relevance. Often the vast majority are in no way responsive to the discovery request. Substantive reviews or analyses of documents are discouraged—if not banned outright. The contract attorney’s role is clear: Review and “bucket” documents, bill the requisite number of hours, and otherwise fly under the radar.
My co-workers vary widely in terms of age, race and ambition. Many are young lawyers just starting out who, like me, need the cash. Some are older attorneys who left private practice. The paychecks are the same or better than those of solos, but there are no clients to chase down for payment, no take-home work and no challenge.
Commonalities are hard to pinpoint. I’ve met charismatic young attorneys with LL.M.s from elite universities who are here to fill a short-term financial void. There are the socially awkward lawyers who likely received scores of rejection letters after interviewing with smaller firms. But none of us can afford to work for a market salary in this city at a small civil practice or insurance defense firm.
I’ve been in rooms with up to 100 document readers. On smaller projects, we are placed in a conference room. Forced into smaller confines, I have met interesting people with whom I otherwise would not have come into contact.
One woman was homeless—she couldn’t afford her rent and was crashing on the couch of a bartender she’d only just met. Another woman in her early 60s left a case we were working on 50 hours per week because she needed more hours to make ends meet. Still, I have never carried a relationship beyond the length of the project.
THE DAILY DRUDGE
I look around the room. many contract attorneys are ashamed to be here. They spend a large part of their days applying for permanent positions, both here and elsewhere.
Mindlessly clicking “open” on e-mail lists for months upon years is mind-numbing for those who took the LSAT with dreams of changing the world. Large firms don’t even let us participate in pro bono programs, as we are not covered by their malpractice insurance.
Stories abound of high-performing contract attorneys being promoted to associate. They are urban myths. A small minority (often those who pursue educational degrees beyond their J.D.) may become staff or “discovery attorneys,” positions that offer more responsibility with little increase in pay.
The reality is even worse: If I review 100 documents per hour (a very fast pace), I get paid the same hourly rate as if I review 30. Moreover, each project consists of a finite number of documents; so the faster I work, the sooner I am out of a job and need to start hustling for the next project.
“Don’t work us out of a job,” a veteran contract attorney once derided me in private after I reviewed too many documents on the first day of a new project. And the firm is usually OK with this attitude; in my experience, speed and accuracy have always taken backstage to billable hours.
There is zero job security for contract attorneys. The supply of out-of-work lawyers far exceeds the number of contract positions available. If you fail to show up to work one day, you may be removed from the project. Contract attorneys are fungible.
Moreover, litigation itself is unpredictable: A lawsuit can settle at a moment’s notice. So contract attorney culture is built around the constant search for the next opportunity. While we have no union, there are websites and blogs where attorney temporaries can vent their frustrations and share job postings, such as Posse List or Temporary Attorney.
In social situations I avoid telling people what I do—I am somewhat embarrassed. If I say I am working at a mega-size corporate law firm, they think I am an associate. If I tell them I am a contract attorney, it is to admit that—despite being highly educated—I spend my days reading someone else’s e-mails.
I honestly have no idea what to do when my stint as a contract attorney ends. I don’t think I can be a contract attorney for much longer anyhow. It’s rough on the mind. I return home to my family exhausted and ready for bed. My life has become an endless cycle of clicking on a computer mouse, commuting to and from work, and sleeping. Lacking motivation, respect and intellectual stimulation, I am stuck.
I am considering going back to school and leaving the legal profession, as many contract attorneys before me have done. But it will probably take five to seven years before I am debt-free.
So for now I’ll put up with the arrogant, degrading looks from paralegals. I’ll deal with small bathrooms, cockroaches in the review centers and overzealous supervisors. I have no choice. It’s a harsh reality.
Welcome to my life.