Contract Attorneys, Document Review, Layoffs, Notes from the Breadline

Notes from the Breadline: Comes A Time (Part II)

Notes from the Breadline Roxana St Thomas.jpgEd. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at, follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
This column is a continuation of last week’s column, which you can read here.

When Olivia tells me that she may have a “possible” document review on which I could “potentially” be staffed, I don’t really believe her. In fact, I have the same feeling I get when I read the spam in my Gmail inbox. I’ve won £1,500,000,000? An undisclosed sum from the Loteria Espana, or perhaps De Lotto Netherlands? It sounds nice for a moment, until you realize that it’s bullshit. The promises of the British Lottery, the “Microword Corporation,” and Mr. Van Curtis of the Delta Lloyd Bank are illusory, gigabytes of sounds and fury, signifying nothing. Likewise recruiters, who often make it sound as though the fabulous job they are describing is yours for the taking — a done deal! Then you never hear from them again.
So I am surprised when Olivia calls me back a few days later to tell me that the “possible” document review has actually materialized. “How would you,” she breathes, pausing dramatically, “like to be staffed on the project?” Something about her delivery makes me wonder if she once dreamed of being a game show host, and has stood before her bathroom mirror telling imaginary guests that they will be going on a four night, five day trip to … Aruba!! I feel as though I should jump up and down and scream, clapping my hands. Instead, I tell her that I would be delighted to work on the project.
“That’s great!” she effuses. She gives me some minimal information about the project (a large pharmaceutical case) and the pay ($30 an hour for the first forty, and around $35 thereafter), then tells me a little bit about the firm, using the most generic terms possible. The people who work there, she says, are “just really nice,” and “a pleasure to work with.” She thinks I’ll “have a lot of fun.” In addition, she adds, the firm sometimes hires temps for full time positions. She says this as though she is telling me that, if I am really good, I might get ice cream at the end of the day.
“Really?” I say. “How often does that happen?”
“Oh, from time to time,” she answers. “It has happened.”
I do not jump up and down and scream when we get off the phone, but I have to admit that I am excited. Though the pay is modest at best, $1200 a week is more than I’m making now. And if the gig lasts for two or three weeks (Olivia’s estimate), I’ll have at least $2400 (or more, if there’s overtime) to throw at my bills.
But I also have some concerns. Read about them, after the jump.

As an associate, when I supervised the occasional document review, I made an effort to explain the substantive aspects of the case to temp attorneys, and to solicit feedback as the review proceeded. It’s hard to be engaged by an assignment when you don’t have a feel for the facts or procedural background of a case (which partners seem often to view as superfluous details), so I tried to make temps feel involved, hoping to give them a sense of ownership so that their work would feel more meaningful. But I knew plenty of attorneys who treated temp attorneys quite differently, and viewed the supervision of document reviews as an opportunity to wield the power they were denied by all other aspects of the firm hierarchy. They viewed temps or contract attorneys as damaged goods, picked from the dent bin of the legal talent pool. Even now, with all kinds of attorneys doing this kind of work, I doubt that this prejudice has vanished completely.
Still, I hope for the best. On my first day of work, I wake up early, get dressed, and make a thermos full of coffee. I feel like I am going to my first day of elementary school, and wonder if I will find a note in my lunchbox later, along with a peanut butter sandwich. “I’m off to work, you lazy bums,” I announce to the cats. “Don’t barf everywhere!”
I arrive at the office at 9:00, even though I am not due there until 9:30. There are already people downstairs on their smoke breaks, staring vacantly into the street, arms folded against an unseasonable chill. At Big Law Firms, I am reminded, a break can seem long overdue by then. I take the elevator up to the firm’s reception area, which is graced by a massive, artistic floral arrangement, and tell the receptionist the name of the attorney I am supposed to ask for. She asks me if I’d like some coffee or tea while I’m waiting. “Sure!” I say brightly.
“Just give me a minute,” she says warmly. “I’ll let her know you’re here.” She dials the phone and murmurs a few words to someone on the other end. “I don’t know,” I hear her say. “I’ll check.” She covers the mouthpiece for a moment and asks me whether I’m “one of the temp attorneys.” Yes, I tell her, although the label feels odd. She hangs up and dials another extension. “Roxana St. Thomas is here for you,” she says flatly, and hangs up. “Elisa will be out to get you in a minute,” she tells me, the warmth gone. I realize that Olivia must have given me the name of the originating partner by mistake, and that Elisa is probably the associate.
The receptionist turns her back, as though she is afraid she will catch something unpalatable just from looking at me. An older man, clearly a partner, steps off the elevator, and she greets him cheerfully. I stare at the massive floral arrangement, trying to guess what the firm spends every year on massive floral arrangements. More to the point, I wonder, do personnel decisions at Big Law firms ever come down to Attorney/Staff Member vs. Floral Arrangement? Are there budget meetings in which one partner says something like, “You know, I really like Ed, but we can’t keep him AND the floral arrangements. Something’s got to give.” At the end of the day, poor, unsuspecting Ed probably remains unaware that all of his higher education, hard work, and sweat equity are no match for an artfully arranged clump of spider orchids, anthuriums, and celosia.
After five minutes, I am reasonably certain that the receptionist’s beverage offer has been rescinded. After twenty minutes, Elisa appears in the reception area. Although there is no one chasing her, she looks harried, as though she was pursued from her office by a pack of foxhounds. She also sounds cranky. “I’m Elisa,” she says, barely looking up from her BlackBerry. “I don’t know why they told you to ask for the partner,” she scoffs derisively. “I’m handling the document review.” She turns around and starts to walk away. Though she has neglected to use one of the common expressions indicating as much, such as “Come with me” or “Right this way,” I deduce that I am supposed to follow her.
I can tell that Elisa is younger than I am, but it takes me a moment to realize just how much younger she is. She has a hardness that makes her seem older, and her clothes — while clearly expensive — look as though they were picked out by her overly conservative grandmother. She also appears oddly mismatched, like her features were gathered from a collection of spare parts. Her lips are thin and fixed in a sour expression, which feels oddly familiar to me, although I can’t quite place it. When we stop to wait for an elevator, another female associate, who is young and pretty, wanders up and stands silently nearby. Elisa looks her over with a disgusted glance, and it hits me: Elisa resembles Dick Cheney.
We get off the elevator and I follow her into the warren-like hallway. “Actually,” she continues seamlessly, as though we had been talking the entire time, “I’m basically handling this entire case. I’m, like, unbelievably busy. And we’ve had one problem after another with these temp attorneys, so it’s been, like, such a nightmare.” She sighs irritably. “I had to fire one last week because he was, like, totally incompetent.”
“How so?” I ask, hoping to learn how not to cross Elisa. But she looks at me strangely, and I realize that we are not having a conversation; Elisa is just thinking out loud. She shifts gears. “Have you done document reviews before? You’ve done document reviews before, right?” she says. It is more of a command than a question. “Because they told me that you had experience doing document reviews, and I really don’t have time to hold anyone’s hand.”
Something about her severity makes me want to compensate, to offset her total lack of geniality. “So, Elisa,” I ask her in the singsong tone I might use with a shy puppy, “it sounds like you’re running the show here. Can you tell me about the case?” I expect her to seize the opportunity to show off her expertise, delight in the details she has mastered, display the familiarity that most overly-involved associates flaunt with pride. Instead, she grunts impatiently. “I’ll give you a binder that explains the coding,” she says. “You don’t really need to know more than that.”
Finally, we arrive at a closed door. Elisa opens it, revealing a windowless room filled with computer screens. Most of them are manned by attorneys, some of whom spin around, blinking dazedly at the interruption. Others appear catatonic, registering no response. I almost expect someone to shout “Close the door!” like the old patrons on Cheers did when reality threatened to penetrate their cocoon. No one does. They are docile and glassy-eyed, and turn back to their screens before I finish saying “hello.”
“Okay,” Elisa says brusquely, grabbing a binder from a stack in the corner. “This is the review protocol. You’re going to be tagging for these 32 categories. Read through it, and if you have any questions after that, you can e-mail me.” She scrawls her e-mail address on a piece of paper. “You know how to use Kroll Ontrack, right?” I do, but I’m not sure I would admit it if I didn’t. “It’s been a while,” I say. “Do you want to just do a quick run-through?”
Elisa exhales wearily, making a sharp hissing sound that causes me to cringe involuntarily. Clearly, she does not want to do a quick run-through. Nonetheless, she plops down at an open computer and clicks into the database, whizzing through its features so quickly that I realize I will have to look through it on my own later, when I have time to reacquaint myself with the “review tool,” as she calls it. While Elisa zips through the program, I study the room and its occupants.
Clearly, I have joined an effort that is already in progress. Whether the attorneys who work here ever actually leave the room is less clear. Most of the computer stations look lived-in: pillows, blankets, and sweaters adorn the chairs, and personal effects are lined up on the tiny slivers of desk space between reviewers. Something about the scene reminds me of a casino, and the way gamblers stake out slot machines by arranging coin cups, drinks, and ashtrays around the perimeter of their territory. Most people have containers of lotion next to their keyboards, and everyone has a large tankard of hand sanitizer nearby. Some have bottles of prescription drugs lined up in their space, along with snacks, tissues, and an eclectic display of knickknacks. Green-haired troll dolls grin blankly from some desks, their round, naked bellies protruding unapologetically. You are taking ‘business casual’ too far, I think silently. Other workstations are decorated with inspirational quotes, action figures, and tattered cartoons clipped from newspapers. There is something poignant about these tiny, dilapidated museums, and the urge, of which they are evidence, to remain unique in a slightly dehumanizing situation.
There is also something gross about the room — specifically, the collection of food that is scattered around. A plate of leftovers, which appears to have been scavenged from a conference room some time yesterday, rests on one table. A decapitated muffin sits next to a hardening piece of bagel and some congealed cream cheese. On a bookshelf, a cup of desiccated melon sits next to a pile of dusty M&Ms. While I am standing behind Elisa, one of the reviewers takes a baked potato out of a Baggie and bites into it, his eyes fixed on the screen.
Elisa finishes her lightning review and stands up abruptly. “Okay,” she says. “All set?” It doesn’t sounds like a question, but I nod anyway. She turns to leave, but spins around just before she reaches the door. “Don’t redact anything yet,” she says sternly. “If you find something that needs to be redacted, put it aside and let me know. I don’t want you to redact anything until I see how you’re doing with the review.”
“Got it,” I say. “Thanks.” She closes the door, and I sense a collective sigh of relief. No one says anything. After a few minutes, an older man, who is wearing carpal tunnel braces on both wrists, looks at the door, as if to make sure that Elisa is gone.
“Bitch,” he mutters, and turns back to his computer.
Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email (at, follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
Earlier: Prior installments of Notes from the Breadline

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