Billable Hours, Contract Attorneys, Document Review, Job Searches, Money, Wall Street Journal

How Can a Lawyer ‘Settle’ for the Only Job He Can Get?

I’ve always wondered what kind of salary contract lawyers make these days. Okay, not really, I kind of already know, because a lot of my friends are contract lawyers. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the wonderful world of contract lawyering, the Wall Street Journal had an interesting article yesterday, by Vanessa O’Connell, on the trials and tribulations of these lawyers-for-hire.

The Journal editors decided to give the piece a cutesy title by using a play on words: “Lawyers settle… for temp jobs.” Lawyers are supposed to be settling cases, and now they’re settling for temporary jobs. Oh, that’s so very witty.

What the WSJ folks might not have realized is that when you’re an unemployed new lawyer in this kind of economy, or even if you’re an older one, you don’t really have the option of “settling.” It’s depressing, but you kind of just accept the fact that this is the hand that you’ve been dealt.

But maybe there is a bright side to this situation after all. Maybe these contract attorneys are making serious bank in these temporary positions….

First of all, this job doesn’t sound like very much fun. It actually sounds, well, pretty damn awful:

For 10 to 12 hours a day—and sometimes during graveyard shifts—contract attorneys . . . sit silently in a big room, at rows of computer monitors. Each lawyer reads thousands of documents online and must quickly “code” every one according to its relevance in litigation or an investigation.

Supervisors discourage talking and breaks are limited. The computer systems count each lawyer’s speed. Some law firms use their own contract attorneys, while others hire them through third-party agencies.

So, how much does one get paid to sit in a zombified state for so many hours? When it comes down to the nitty gritty, the compensation rates for contract lawyers really depend on the firm or agency doing the hiring. Some of these temporary jobs pay as little as $15 an hour (which is probably the going rate for babysitters these days); others, however, pay $33 an hour, which is a little bit more respectable.

While the money might be alright, Biglaw firms are still, unsurprisingly, paying their full-time associates much, much more:

A typical contract lawyer with an average flow of work can make $40,000 to $50,000 annually, according to Veronica Maldonado, a contract attorney in Chicago who recently started a website for contract lawyers. That compares with an average starting salary of $160,000 for associates — who may also get bonuses of $10,000 or more annually — at some of the big corporate law firms in New York.

What I found really great, though, was the fact that these Biglaw firms and staffing agencies are billing their temporary attorneys out on the cheap. Not like junior-associate cheap, but handyman cheap. It’s not pretty, people. These contract attorneys are being billed out lower than Reema Bajaj’s alleged hourly rate:

Large firms are billing $325 to $550 for an hour’s work this year by freshman associates, while smaller firms bill them as low as $100, according to research firm Valeo Partners. Temp staffing agencies, in contrast, might bill around $50 an hour or less for document review work by contract attorneys.

At the end of the day, I guess we here at Above the Law can update the “it’s hard out here for a [insert position]” meme to include contract attorney. Because really, it is hard to only have access to occasional work that doesn’t come with any perks.

Do you have anything particularly insightful to say about your experiences as a contract attorney? Do you know anyone who seems to be suffering the same fate as those featured in the Wall Street Journal article? Please let us know in the comments or by email.

Lawyers Settle… for Temp Jobs [Wall Street Journal]

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