Earlier this week, we took a look at a contract attorney project in D.C. that has been making the contractors sad. I mean more sad than normal.
We received a lot of actually interesting comments (!) in the thread after the story, as well as emails giving us more details about the project. It appears that the staffing firm, Compliance, has taken some steps to ameliorate the poor working conditions for the contract attorneys. It also looks like the working conditions could actually be improved if they dropped a Port-a-Potty in the middle of the conference room.
But it’s not all bad. Sometimes speaking out can lead to improved working conditions. Let’s take another look at how the other half lives, and you know, scare the bejesus out of 2Ls doing OCI right now who are really hoping to get jobs….
One of the most basic expressions of workplace treatment probably has to do with the conditions under which you are allowed to go to the bathroom. At the very low end of the spectrum are prisoners (and Biglaw receptionists). “Forty years I been asking permission to piss; I can’t squeeze a drop without say-so” — would be the worst. At the other end, President Lydon Johnson famously held meetings while he was taking a dump. Nothing says “absolute power” like making people feel like their business must share time with your bowel movements.
Contract attorneys have it a little better than prisoners, but they’re nowhere close to getting the keys to the executive bathroom. A person who is working on the Compliance project at Crowell & Moring in D.C. that we mentioned earlier this week left a detailed comment about working conditions there. Check out the thread to see it in full. Regarding the bathrooms, he said this:
The bathrooms contain exactly 3 stalls. There is always a line and toilet paper is at a premium…. We were told we could also use the bathroom on the third floor (but our cards still do not give us access to those bathrooms.
You know you are working in a bad job when you have to ask yourself if you should bring your own toilet paper to work.
Another contract attorney voices similar concerns:
I’ve already mentioned that there are approximately 185 attorneys in this office, a dozen supervisors and maybe half a dozen support staff. There are three stalls in the men’s room and two urinals. The restroom frequently runs out of paper towels and toilet paper and soap, tho I recognize the agency’s recent revamped efforts to fix this. That doesn’t change the fact I often have to wait for a stall.
I’m sure that there are more than enough bathrooms at any of these major law firms to accommodate all the contractors. The issue is that partners and associates don’t want to share their bathrooms with the contract attorneys. It’s like they’re afraid they’ll catch cooties or something. Here’s an email that we received a couple of months ago, from a firm that obviously had a problem with the way their contract attorneys were using their precious bathrooms:
It has been brought to Hire Counsel’s attention that there are some issues with proper bathroom etiquette at the work site. It is Hire Counsel’s policy to ensure healthy and safe work environment for everyone. This includes using the bathroom facilities at the client’s location. Please clean up after yourself to help maintain a clean and healthy environment.
Unless there are cameras in the bathroom… check that… unless the NSA allows the firm to view the surveillance footage from the firm’s bathrooms, it’s pretty hard to tell whether a contract attorney, an associate, or a partner who expects others to clean up after him fouled the bathroom. But the clear presumption is that full-time employees act one way, nasty contract-attorney heathens act another. Firms already have one caste system in place in terms of bathroom usage (pro-tip: always, always use the bathrooms on client floors by reception); as firms use more and more contract attorneys, we’re going to end up with another. Trust me, there will be some firm soon that will make contractors find a street bathroom like they are cabbies or something.
Sometimes the workplace is like a bathroom itself. From one tipster who no longer works as a contractor:
I worked over one year as a contract attorney at Crowell, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in Washington DC. When one entered their lobby, all employees took elevators up, while we took the parking garage elevators down — down to the lowest level of the parking gargage. Next we took two sets of stairs to go to a sub-, sub-basement that was meant for storage, not human beings.
There was sewage leaking from pipes in the ceiling. We caught and captured two of the mice that plagued us. Various bugs I have never seen before were killed.
Man, I’m starting to think that being a contract attorney in D.C. sucks.
Let’s move on from bathrooms to food. It turns out that contract attorneys like to bring their lunch. I guess ordering lobster on Seamless and charging it to the client is frowned upon or something. But to bring your lunch, you need fridge space. You also need space to actually eat your food in or around your desk. All of that is apparently in very short supply for contract attorneys:
The totality of my personal work space is about 2.5 feet by 2 feet (seriously, that’s how much desk space I have, half of which is taken up by monitor and keyboard). I sit literally an arm’s length from my colleagues, i.e, if I raised my arms at a 90-degree angle I would come into contact with their shoulders. We sit in rows as if it were a German beer hall with terminals instead of steins….
Our kitchen’s available open space is approximately 5 feet by 10 feet. One water dispenser, one coffee machine, one sink.
Up until a month ago there was nowhere for us to eat except at our desk.
Again, these sound like the kinds of working conditions enjoyed by non-unionized garment workers in the 1920s.
But here’s the thing. Even with these conditions — and let’s remember that we’re not even talking about the mind-numbing document review that starves your brain of intellectual stimulation — most people who have these jobs are happy to have them:
But I’m lucky to have a job, lucky to have heavy hours and lucky to be on a project that pays overtime as many don’t… I’ve been lucky enough to be on long term projects these past few years but I have friends who get 2 week gigs and then have to go on unemployment until they find another one.
Says our Compliance commenter:
On every point except the bathroom Compliance could have avoided this whole mess by being up front with us from the start. Nearly everyone here would have still taken the job without much complaint if they knew the details from the start.
People have to do what they can to pay the bills, and contract attorneys are not in the strongest market position. But that doesn’t mean conditions can’t improve. In the previous article, I said that the “we are human and we do this work for our living” email was the saddest thing I’ve seen all summer. This email, from a contractor working on a project in D.C. with a different staffing firm, might be the best thing that’s come across my inbox lately:
Today we were given a $4 an hour raise and an extended butt-kissing from our boss replete with comments about how she sees us “as people.” I have no doubt it was in direct response to your article — which I noticed on our recruiter’s computer screen as I walked by. Your journalism made a measurable difference in at least 120 lives today and I thank you for it.
Transparency always helps. If word gets around that working at some agencies for some firms results in long bathroom lines, while working for other people results in humane working conditions, the market has a chance to operate efficiently.
In any event, good luck at OCI, guys. If someone asks you why you want to summer at their firm, say “I hear associates have reliable access to clean and well-stocked bathrooms.” It’s the kind of “perk” you only notice when it’s gone.