I recently received an email from a rather desperate attorney. They’d finally come to the realization that after losing their job a few months ago they would need to take a contractor position, and they weren’t happy about it. I wasn’t either when I took my first contract attorney job, but it pays the bills and I guess that is the point.
Do you remember that old anti-drug PSA from the 80s that informed us that no kid wants to grow up to be a junkie? Well, no law student wants to be a contract attorney. But much like learning not to share dirty needles, there are tricks for the best way to survive the legal underground.
1. Pick your seat carefully.
Aisle seating is ideal, but definitely try to secure a clear path to the exit. I mean, there could be a fire, but more to the point you may need to make a… surreptitious exit on a Friday.
There is also the matter of your seat-mates (those are like officemates, but in a conference room); fortunately the weird ones tend to stick out. Avoid them. Do this long enough, and in the same market, and soon you’ll recognize the cast of characters.
2. Don’t ask hypothetical questions.
There comes a time at the end of every training, when they ask if there are questions. And you may legitimately have a question about the process or substance, but this is not law school. There are no points for creativity, so do not ask about a theoretical document that does not exist. If you have a question about an actual document that you are actually reviewing, sure, ask a question. But don’t ask esoteric questions about documents you think you might see one day. That just wastes time and effort, and you look like a douche.
3. Bring headphones.
You are about to embark on an incredibly boring endeavor. Be prepared. Some shops won’t let you have access to email or other typical forms of office time wasting. So make sure you have some music or podcasts available. There will be some loud mouthbreathers in the room, and the ability to drown them out will be key.
4. Know how fast you’re expected to code.
Project managers have a number in the back of their head, and that number is the amount of documents contractors should be able to code in an hour — 50, 100, 150, whatever the number is once, you know it you have the ability to meet it. Side note: don’t be a superstar. Code the number of documents that you need to in order to stay on the project, but there is no need to code all of the documents in one day. Remember, the sooner you code all the documents, the sooner you are out of a job.
5. Be cognizant of when the project will end.
This may be your return to the workforce after an unexpected break, but it isn’t going to last. You have to know the score, and appreciating the temporal nature of your position is important. Don’t lose your cool when the project starts to wind down. Sometimes the end can be sudden (it is just as likely you’ll have a project your agency swears will last 3 weeks end after 2 days, as it is you’ll be on a week-long project that lasts 6 months), but whenever it ends, don’t freak out just because it wasn’t what you expected. I have witnessed contractors pointedly question why there were no more documents left to review when they had been led to believe there would be a few more weeks in the project… then they aren’t called back in when there are new documents to review.
6. Be mindful of what you eat.
Listen, I get it. Time is money. When you are paid by the hour, it makes sense to eat at your desk to maximize your billable hours — but you aren’t at a firm, and know you are sharing limited space. So don’t chow down on particularly odoriferous delicacies, don’t spit sunflower shells and, for all that is holy, do not dip at your desk. Try to be a good neighbor and hopefully others will do the same.
7. Be ready for temperature changes.
Yes, I know people in office buildings everywhere complain about the temperature. Too cold in the summer or hot in the winter is a typical complaint and very much a #firstworldproblem. Now imagine all that normal nonsense, but you are located in a satellite building that management is actively trying to forget it leases out. So dress in layers and bring a sweater; do whatever you need to do. But realize actually fixing the problem is not on anyone’s to-do list.
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 [email protected]