Cars, Contract Attorneys

If This Van’s A-Rockin’ Don’t Come A-Knockin’

… because you’ll find a sad man crying himself to sleep.

Here we are on the eve of Thanksgiving, and it is traditional to publicly spew all of the things we are thankful for ad nauseam. Fine. Despite the horror of not yet knowing the exact bonus benchmark that “elite” firms will set for themselves this year, I am sure there is something for which I am thankful. Well, I am on a large project that seems like it will last through the end of the year. That is pretty much the best a contract attorney can hope for — especially in a week where we will miss out on two days of work (you call it a holiday, I call it forced budgeting).

This weekly column has really been about the nature of the worst legal job, and the underlying message is that it can be a sad existence. I am not saying this to garner sympathy — let’s face it, anyone who decided to go to law school probably isn’t a great candidate for sympathy — but rather to describe reality. Packed into a room of people who were positive, in the not too distant past, that they were better than the life they are currently living can be disheartening. We’ve focused a lot on the dollar amount associated with being a contractor, and the actual tasks you might do, but what is life really like for the legal underground?

You won’t believe the extremes one West Coaster is going to for an hourly wage…

We received a tip about a lawyer living in a van down by the river. Well, not exactly, but disturbingly close. Maybe it’s becoming a trend.

Out in California, some intrepid tipster snapped a pic of a contractor’s RV sitting in the parking lot of a project. And for all you cynics out there determined to poke holes in every internet phenomenon, who’ve convinced yourselves this is just some USC tailgater who has gotten hopelessly lost (or, for that matter, Lane Kiffin’s home these days), the owner of the RV helpfully placed a note in the window explaining that he was on a legal project, so please don’t tow him. We live in an age of “if the pics don’t exist it didn’t happen,” so see the reality for yourself (click for a larger version of these images):

There isn’t a lot to say about these pictures. The mental image is clear enough. Coding documents by day, trying to find somewhere to park his living room at night. Sounds like a blast. At least with both transport and housing covered, this contractor is free to roam the Left Coast searching for that perfect $40 an hour with OT job.

Unfortunately, this is not unheard of. While in DC or NYC contractors can just hop on a train to access a wide variety of contract attorney “opportunities,” that isn’t true everywhere. In some markets — frighteningly, many of the lower-paying ones — attorneys from far and wide are drawn to any new project in the greater region. These folks are forced to resort to buses or doubling (or tripling) up on carpooling and housing with other lawyers to make the meager salary work out to be better than staying at home. There is little sadder than seeing a contractor who has just paid for a week at an extended stay hotel find out that a project has unexpectedly wrapped on a Monday.

This legal gypsyism is part of the new world for attorneys without permanent jobs. The only requirement for most document review gigs is being barred in “at least one jurisdiction,” so if there are no projects currently staffing in Cleveland, why not try your hand at Columbus? Or Indianapolis? Or even Detroit, if you can stomach being in that state up north? Your profit margin may not be great when you factor in the mileage and housing costs, but as long as you are in the black, the trip is justified. This guy might seem like an extreme example of the trend, but he is certainly not alone.

And at least he doesn’t have to worry about bed bugs at some fleabag motel.

Earlier: Lawyerly Lairs: Lawyer Lives In RV Down By the River

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

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