Biglaw, Contract Attorneys, Document Review, Job Searches, Law Schools, Outsourcing, Student Loans

Law Graduates: Welcome to Your ‘Barely Legal’ Future

I know lots of guys fantasize about boinking “barely legal” teenage girls. Not me, I like women: fully formed, adult women. There’s just something unseemly about older men salivating over girls who could have been in high school a year ago. Call me crazy, but it’s just more interesting as an adult to be intimate with other adults.

Similarly, I like my lawyers to actually practice law. There’s something unseemly about watching market forces turn law school graduates into glorified paralegals and secretaries. Call me a prude, but there’s just something gross about seeing young, nubile attorneys going around begging for document review positions. These people spent three years of their lives and six figures of their (or someone else’s) money to get law degrees; they should have something to show for their efforts.

But even if I don’t like to look, I can’t deny that this is happening. We are all living in a time that will be studied by future generations: a time when attorney career paths bifurcated, between traditional partnership-track associates and what I’ll call “barely legal” career paths….

Earlier this week, Am Law Daily reported on how WilmerHale is currently seeking 20 lawyers to do document review out of its “business services center” in Dayton, Ohio. Here’s how Harold Gibson, managing partner of the center, described the positions:

[T]he lawyer openings carry the title of “discovery attorney,” according to Gibson. Those hired will handle document review on a variety of cases and earn somewhere in the range of $55,000 to $60,000 a year; their employment status will be full-time, with benefits.

Wow, $55K-a-year, full-time positions doing document review. Does this work, which could be described as “barely legal,” really require three years of expensive post-graduate education?

(Speaking of WilmerHale, we hear that their bonuses are out. Please email us or text us, 646-820-TIPS / 646-820-8477, with any information.)

And WilmerHale isn’t the only entity on the prowl for “barely legal” lawyers. You’ll remember that last November, Thomson Reuters (disclosure: ATL advertiser) announced that it was exploring the sale of BAR/BRI, its bar exam prep business, and purchasing Pangea3, a legal process outsourcing company. That’s a strong message that they think there’s more of a future in hiring people to do low-end legal work, work that technically doesn’t constitute “practicing law” under legal ethics rules, than in training the practitioners of the future.

Well, Rachel Zahorsky of the ABA Journal now reports that Thomson Reuters is ready to hire the legal professionals of the future:

[This week] we discovered a Thomson-Pangea3 post on job-search website Monster.com looking for full-time and temporary, experienced contract attorneys to staff a new facility in Michigan on March 1.

The company is hiring lawyers “barred in any U.S. jurisdiction” to “build multiple document review project teams” in “anticipation of establishing a document review facility in Ann Arbor, Mich.,” according to the Monster job post.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing inherently wrong with hiring law school graduates to do grunt work. Hell, for years that’s what Biglaw did — only they’d pay these young associates a huge amount of money, and charge clients an arm and a leg for work that can really be done by an intelligent and conscientious high school student. It makes a lot of sense to find a way to do this work more cheaply. And clients are demanding that this work be done more cheaply.

The main reason that all this is bad news for law students and recent graduates is that law schools are light years away from admitting this reality to themselves and charging appropriately. If we’re going to have two different “tracks” for attorneys, then shouldn’t we have two different tracks for legal education? Why require three years and charge six figures to train people for jobs that they have nearly no hope of getting?

Wouldn’t it be better if we had some of our law schools training the document professionals of the future? Put people in school for one year, give them courses on attorney-client privilege and some basic corporate and litigation principles, don’t make them sit for the bar, and let ‘em rip.

Or, if that’s too dramatic a change (see the ABA accreditation requirements), could we at least have some law school programs, still lasting three years, that would explicitly focus on training document-review professionals — and charge their students dramatically less in tuition, in recognition of the reality that the jobs their students will land won’t pay in the six figures?

You’re telling me that this wouldn’t work? A salary of $60K is decent — if you aren’t already drowning in six-figures of debt. And people who go to “document ninja school” (that’s just a working title) won’t graduate with unreasonable expectations about compensation and prestige.

The bottom line is that the document reviewers hired by WilmerHale and Thomson Reuters will probably be miserable. Not right away, of course; right out of the box, they’ll just be happy to have jobs. Unemployment is still over 9 percent, after all.

But after a while, when they realize that these document jobs aren’t going to lead them into partnership-track posts in Biglaw — and might not lead them anywhere except into more document work — they’ll start hating everything. They’ll feel exploited and frustrated, and broke. They’ll feel so very broke, when they compare $55K salaries to $150K or more in debt.

There’s nothing wrong with these new positions. It’s the journey that brings people to these positions that is the problem.

Wilmer Is Hiring…in Dayton [Am Law Daily]
Thomson Reuters Hiring Attorneys for New LPO Outfit in Michigan [ABA Journal]

Earlier: Thomson Reuters Exploring Sale of BAR/BRI, Will Acquire Pangea3

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