We don’t do enough reporting about the struggles of contract attorneys. We should do more, because that’s where the jobs are. Biglaw firms have been able to keep traditional associate hiring down thanks to an explosion in the use of contract attorneys. Getting one of these hourly wage jobs actually represents success in a market saturated with underemployed attorneys.

Now I remember why I don’t do a lot of reporting on contract attorneys: acknowledging that these, and not high-paying traditional associate salaried positions, are the jobs coming back in the “recovery” is terribly, terribly sad.

This might come as a shock to you, but being a document monkey on an hourly wage is not all that it’s cracked up to be. These hard-working people generally want to work as much as possible (kind of the opposite of traditional associates) for obvious reasons. But they are often frustrated by all sorts of bureaucracy and poor treatment in their quest to wring some value out of their J.D. degrees.

We have some emails detailing the struggles of one group of contractors working on projects in D.C. Hopefully, this will inspire other contract attorneys to share their experiences with “the new normal”….

Our emails come from the staffing firm Compliance. I don’t know anything about them, but people working for them on a project for a D.C. Biglaw firm seem unhappy. Here’s pretty much the saddest email I’ve seen all summer:

Mr. [Redacted],

I just saw your email. First of all, thank you for taking time to send us the note. I am afraid, however, the time rules as explained in your email greatly discourage us. Above all, we are frustrated that Compliance’s time rules in this project keep changing. To clarify my understanding, are you saying that if we work 10 hours a day, we should subtract one (1) hour, billing only 9.5 hours? Then, this would be completely different from what we have been told and understood. We were told before that “If [we] plan to work for the entire window of 8:00am-8:00pm [we] must take a 1 hour break for the day and bill a maxim of 11 hours.”…

Many of us already feel extremely dispirited, discouraged, and tired by the extremely crowded working conditions as well as the low rate. (I suggest that you personally check the kitchen and bathroom conditions during the day, if you haven’t yet.) I respectfully request that you reconsider your time rules. We are human, and we do this work for our living. Thank you.

This guy sounds like he’s making iPhones in China. It’s almost hard to believe that these people have (at least) seven years of higher education under their belt and most of them have passed a bar exam. “We are human, and we do this work for our living,” is a line that belongs in a Dickens novel. But here we see it from a lawyer begging to be allowed to work 12 hours a day with no break.

Was it only six or seven years ago that people who spent 12 hours a day doing document review were paid six-figure salaries, five-figure bonuses, and still jumped ship after a few years for better opportunities? Reading contract attorney emails is kind of like leaving Earth right before the apocalypse in a spaceship traveling at the speed of light and coming back when only five years have passed for you, but 500 years have passed on the planet. It’s sifting through the rubble and thinking, “Man, that used to be D.C., capital city of a superpower.”

Biglaw associates have always struggled with collective action problems. For contract attorneys, I imagine there is no hope. But I guess one guy working at Compliance is nonetheless willing to try:

Is the garage entrance compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act? It seems dangerous to have to walk down a steep ramp as well. Since weekend work is now required and the lobby is closed it seems a necessary element.

Second, many of us relied (now) to our detriment in taking this project based on the assurances we received that it would be 80 total hours with an “open” time window. Your material changes are substantial and could be several thousand dollars for each of us by the end of this project. Considering that Tower and Law Resources are paying it’s employees at Arnold and Porter $32 per hour, on this same case, it’s clearly a bait and switch employment tactic typical with agencies these days.

If Crowell wants to take on that potential legal liability, ok, that’s their decision.

Third, if you think that we won’t jump just because the market is “slow,” keep in mind many of us jumped other projects to come here. We all know that’s the nature of the beast. We can do it again.

Lastly, many of us have solid work ethics. So, does Crowell allow it’s own attorneys to work more than 9.75 hours requiring a 1 hr break, or more than 11.0 hours in a day? Seems hypocritical doesn’t it?

Sincerely,
The Group of 175+ Attorneys
P.S., you’re out of coffee again

The bitterness just drips off the screen, doesn’t it? I’m not going to make fun of the guy for throwing around accusations of liability that clearly don’t rise to a colorable claim of anything. Instead, my takeaway is again just how desperately these people want to work. They’re desperate to work 80 hours a week on a projects that associates with J.D.s used to invent fake grandmothers with fatal heart conditions just to avoid.

My father used to say that “America allows the poor to exist to scare the s**t out of the middle class and keep them in line.” And I can’t help thinking that when your Biglaw firm brings in a gang of desperate, hungry contract attorneys, it must also have an effect on how you view your position. I haven’t met a Biglaw associate who thinks that one of these contract attorneys is going to “take” their job (though I have met a metric ton of contract attorneys who think that doing a good job contracting will magically lead to a full-time associate position). Instead, I think a lot of Biglaw associates look at the contract attorneys, think “there but for the grace of God go I,” and keep their mouths shut when bonuses stink.

There are lots of reasons the basic Biglaw associate pay scale hasn’t seen in a raise in over five years, and this is certainly one of them.

Contract attorneys all feel like their life as a contractor is temporary, but is it? At what point does “contract attorney” become not your job, but your career? When do you become a reviewer for hire, and does anybody go to law school to do that for a living?

Anyway, send in your stories to tips@abovethelaw.com. We need to shine more light into this growing sector of the legal employment market. At least agencies like Compliance seem to be hiring. I fear there are a lot of people who can’t even get a contract attorney job who would be willing to bring their coffee in a thermos.


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