Biglaw, Contract Attorneys, Document Review

The Not-So-Surprising Reason Associates Treat Contract Attorneys Poorly

If you’ve spent any amount of time doing document review I know you’ll find this scenario familiar.

An associate gathers the reviewers around for “feedback,” a simple word that drips with derision. You’d think the associate might actually be a 13-year-old girl told they can’t go to the mall there are so many eye rolls and sighs peppered through this allegedly constructive conversation. The crime you and your fellow doc reviewers stand accused of? Not properly applying one of the 15 issue tags to responsive documents. The horror. Never mind you are being asked to code 100+ documents an hour on a computer system that whines and chugs along at the effort of moving between docs. There is apparently a standard of perfection on this project and you and your fellow inmates have failed to make the grade.

This goes beyond the simple horrible boss phenomenon. But what is it about document review that seems to draw this ire?

We recently received a query from one of our readers:

I happened to notice your post about contract lawyers, I’ve done that before. Long story short, it would be awesome to see one simple question posed to all of these people:

If contract lawyers do the work of these pampered 1st and 2nd year big firm associates . . . where’s the money for it?

Because usually you’re paid about 25% or less of what these clueless and usually very spoiled (and usually not that bright) children make.

It kinda makes you think about all kinds of very liberal ideas that your employers don’t like to have brought up, when they make it that obvious.

And why do they trust such highly confidential docs with people they basically met off of the street, in their view?

It’s an extremely sick and weird industry, if you ask me.

Where’s the money? Well, that’s gone and isn’t ever coming back. There are too many lawyers willing to work for too little money. Contract attorneys are a cost-cutting measure, and as clients get increasingly savvy they are insisting that Biglaw use us, and they want to see the savings in their monthly bill. Then the reader asks what is to me the more illuminating question: if they trust contract attorneys with such sensitive information, why do they treat us so poorly?

Let’s be clear, my intention with this post is not just to complain about people who’ve treated me poorly in the past. This isn’t about a single episode of an associate behaving badly, this is an industry-wide issue. Contract attorneys have formed a symbiotic relationship with the practice of Biglaw, and few people at law firms seem happy about it.

I believe the issue can be summed up by the fact that we are taking their jobs. These days there are very few 200+ person classes of first-year associates wandering the halls of Biglaw. The giant doc review projects that were once used to justify those numbers are going to managed document review services companies. Clients do not see the value in spending $300 an hour for a first-year associate to review documents, not when temps are out there willing to do the same job for so much less money.

All of this circles back to the hypothetical scenario with which I opened the column: an associate viciously nit-picking the work of contract attorney, as if in similar conditions their one whole year of experience and degree from a T-14 school would have prevented them from the same error. But we know what they are really doing, trying to justify their existence — and more importantly their bill — to the client. Perhaps they’ve spent an inordinate number of hours QCing a very small amount of documents, or their bosses are making a pitch to bring the review to the firm (“the same quality at 10 times the price!”) — the specifics matter less than the big picture. Associates (read: Biglaw) have a vested interest in finding “errors” that may provide very little additional value to the client. Your work is just a pawn in a much bigger battle, as law firms try valiantly to rage against the dying of the light and save a dying business model.

Who’s eating law firms’ lunch? [ABA Journal]

Earlier: Do You Recognize Your Horrible Boss?
So How Much Do Contract Attorneys Really Make?
House Rules: The Rates Are Too Damned High! (Part One)
5 Threats Contract Attorneys Pose For Biglaw Associates

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 and be sure to follow Alex on Twitter: @AlexRichEsq.

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