Contractors have been there before — an unnecessarily angry associate screaming at a room of temps muttering about when they were first-year associates. So what has got their panties in a bunch? Well, like most curmudgeons, it is change. The legal landscape is rapidly shifting, and one has to move with the tide or be swept away.
We frequently throw the term “Contract Attorney” around in this column, but there are a wide variety of tasks that are now considered contract work. As the tasks change, contractors encroach more and more on work traditionally thought of as an associate’s domain.
So what are the most typical contractor tasks, and how are they affecting the associates’ way of life?
1. Foreign Language Review
What is it? It is shockingly similar to what is sounds like. Documents in some other language that need to be reviewed. Sounds simple, right? Well, there is actually an exam that needs to be passed to qualify as a foreign language reviewer, and this exam requirement is not without controversy. We’ve had a bit of discussion on foreign language reviews (particularly Japanese) in the comments each week as the hourly rate for these jobs has not taken the nose dive the rest of the market has. Congratulations to Japanese-speaking reviewers: you remain precious and unique snowflakes in the world of contract work.
Threat level? Low. You’d have to hire a translator anyway…
2. Straight Doc Review
What is it? Exactly what you think it is. Documents get downloaded from the client and have to get produced. This is so rote that it may not even be legal work…
Threat level? Low to medium. Yes, I know. I have heard all the jokes that even a monkey can review documents. So why isn’t this the lowest possible threat? Well, because while it is relatively easy work, 5-10 years ago document review was a staple of Biglaw’s bottom line and associates could easily hit their bonus targets with a few of these projects a year. While most of the legal world now realizes that Biglaw document review hour-churning is no longer a reality, it still stings. Especially in mid-October when young associates ponder how they’ll make the extra few hundred hours they’ll need to rack in the big bucks.
3. Logging of Privileged Documents
What is it? It’s creating a priv log. Come on, you went to law school, you are at least familiar with the concept. After all, law schools teach practical skills these days, right? Oops.
Threat level? Medium. This at least seems like it could be considered honest-to-God legal work. Logging is still primarily done by associates. However, legal services companies offer priv logging in their growing catalog of services, and as more firms (and clients) become aware that this can be done better (by that I mean cheaper if you are the client, and at a higher profit margin if you are a law firm) by contractors there is definite creep into associate territory.
4. Preparation for Depositions or Hearings
What is it? Contractors review of documents that have already been produced for a specific litigation purpose — whether it be taking/defending a deposition, preparing for a hearing, or writing a motion. This generally involves copious amounts of sub-tagging to give the firm partners a thoroughly indexed digital binder to draw from. The torturous-looking coding panels aside, these can be highly prized contractor jobs for the $1-2/hour above market they can command.
Threat level? Medium to high. Wait a second, is actual analysis and legal judgment required? Are you sure you want a contractor working on this? Well, not if you are an associate. This is a major area of growth for contract work, and as the firm/clients start applying this “temporary” solution to more and more tasks, your job security looks worse.
5. Drafting Briefs and/or Memos
What is it? I’ve been hearing rumors for a while that a certain prestigious Biglaw firm is hiring displaced former associates and hiring them on as contractors to essentially function as first-years. The pay is well north of $40 an hour and the work involves the full panoply of legal tasks from research to drafting motions.
Threat level? Danger, Will Robinson. Why take the time to train brand new (expensive) first-year associates to draft motions when a down-on-their-luck fifth-year will do it cheaper? The idea of farming basic legal work out to struggling older attorneys used to be fodder for pranks, but it’s becoming a reality. Firms recognize that work performed by experienced attorneys likely needs fewer edits and once crunch time is over they can stop paying the poor contractors.
At the close of last week’s column, I asked for stories about the worst contract jobs, and I am happy to announce I have received official confirmation from the powers-that-be at ATL to award coveted t-shirts for information about these terrible, horrible, no good, very bad jobs. The “winner” was the below tip and comment:
A 09/30/2013 Craigslist Columbia, SC ad sought contract attorneys willing to work for $17/hr—plus OT, of course.
Before that, a 09/16/2013 Craigslist Charlotte, NC ad offered $10/hr (plus incentive/bonus pay) for an attorney, with immigration experience and foreign language skills, to handle immigration matters. Craigslist went crazy. It’s still not clear whether that was a legitimate offer of employment.
We appear to have found the bottom of the market… for now. If you have information about a bad contract attorney job, send an email to email@example.com with the subject line “worst job.” As for this week’s winner, send us an email with your mailing information and t-shirt size — at $17/hour, you could use all the free stuff you can get.
Unrealistic And Fantastic Language Skill Requirements For Contract Attorneys [Contract Attorney Central]
Litigation: Ignoring privilege log obligations may prove costly [Inside Counsel]
Earlier: Contract Attorney Alleges He Wasn’t Doing Real Legal Work, Sues For Overtime
It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Bonus Season
This Firm Hired An Actor To Play The World’s Worst Summer Associate
Alex Rich is a T14 grad and Biglaw refugee who has worked as a contract attorney for the last 7 years… and counting. If you have a story about the underbelly of the legal world known as contract work, email Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org