Earlier this week the Anonymous Partner wrote about Biglaw’s dirty little open secret, which he generously referred to as “creative billing” but which we all know is simply bilking money from your clients. It’s a common enough practice, and while an associate’s bonus may or may not be linked to the number of hours billed, it certainly improves the firm’s bottom line. But could you imagine the abuses that would occur if the associate’s weekly paycheck fluctuated depending on the number of hours they billed that week?
Welcome to the world of the contract attorney…
In the past when I’ve referenced the pressure contract attorneys are under to bill, it was met by a fair amount of incredulity from those outside the doc review world. In fact, one commenter had several questions about the mechanics of contractor billing.
Do you actually have to bill as a doc monkey? Why “maximize your billable hours” when you are paid by the hour and get no bonus? That makes no sense to me. Do you have to punch a card? Do they install GPS tracking devices in you and then only pay you for the times you ding as “on-site”?
The short answer is yes, we do bill. That is how we get paid. So forget the ethics of leaving your DTE running while you’re in the crapper, you’d better believe that every second at a job site (minus any mandatory breaks) gets billed. Now those hours do get funneled through the staffing agency, so I have no way of knowing if all of those hours get directly billed to the client, but it seems unlikely the agency is eating very many of those hours.
As for the GPS tracking, that varies job to job. Fun true story on that subject. I once worked a contract job at a fairly well known law firm — one that has been covered extensively in the pages of ATL — and they had every contractor swipe in and out of the room they were coding in. If the difference between your time entry for the day and the times you were in the room (according to their entry card logs) was more than 3 minutes your pay got docked. Oh, and they informed you that your pay was going to be docked in a delightfully public way. I must admit, it was a very effective conditioning tool. For the course of that entire project I never forgot the exact time I arrived or left work, even though I resented every second I was there.
Is that an extreme example? Yes. Most project managers take a much more measured approach to ensuring that contractors are actually working the hours they are billing. Contract attorneys rarely get the opportunity to work from home, so there is no fudging on that front, you generally have to be in your chair to do your job. Some project managers will make periodic sweeps of the review rooms, and perhaps ask pointed questions about your “other appointments” if you are (totally subjectively) deemed to be out of your chair for too long. I’ve been on other projects that employ technology to ensure you are “clicking” a certain amount of times per hour (pro tip: a friendly neighbor can usually get you around that requirement). Other projects don’t seem to care at all, and I guess as long as the cost of contractors is passed on (and perhaps marked up) to the client there is a disincentive to monitor the hours billed.
And therein lies a key question, should contract attorneys’ time entries be monitored? After all, they are still attorneys bound by the same ethical obligations of Biglaw associates. And while that is true, the sad reality is that the incentives exist for contractors to bill aggressively as there is a direct correlation between every tenth of an hour billed and the size of that week’s paycheck. As long as you are coding the amount of documents expected on a daily basis is there really much harm?
Now, the overwhelming majority of contractors I have worked with take their ethical obligation vis-a-vis billing at least as seriously (if not more) as their Biglaw counterparts. But with the incentive structure as it currently exists, I am also certain there are outliers.
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