Whenever anyone (I’m guilty of it too) talks about the upside of working as a contract attorney, the word “flexibility” comes up within the first 10 seconds. When you have a job that is staggeringly boring that provides you with no job security you celebrate whatever advantages you can find, and the ability to take a day off whenever you’ve stopped giving a damn (and not be chained to a phone endlessly checking your email) is a boon. Sure, it might be because you are fungible and your employers has no investment in your career, but I’ll take the victories wherever I can find ’em.
But is the level of flexibility contract attorneys enjoy something you can depend on, and really create a schedule around? Say, if you’re a working parent?
This question comes to us from a reader looking to know a little more about the nuances of contract work:
What do you think about contract attorney work for working mother attorneys who would like to reduce their schedule to around 30 hours a week and set their own hours, say, during the school day? Do you think something like that is feasible as a contract attorney?
The thing about being a contract attorney is that you never really know what your schedule might be like. I’ve seen case managers assure a room full of doc reviewers that there are weeks of work on a particular matter in the morning, then let the whole room go because they are “out of documents” in the afternoon. You might be breezing through 8 hours a day when the powers that be “ramp up” and decide that everyone has to bill a minimum of 12 hours a day or they’re gone.
The terms of your employment are incredibly capricious as a contract attorney, and whenever something particularly terrible happens, the manager will blithely parrot some version of the sentiment, “it’s the nature of the industry.” Document reviewers are so far down on the totem pole we’re just supposed to take whatever conditions management decides on, with little to no notice. And there is little consistency between jobs. One project might be incredibly flexible and you’ll have no problem picking up your kid from school daily and the very next week you might be on a case that requires you to work every hour your child is awake.
All that being said, I wouldn’t rule anything out. I know there are some folks out there that make it work. My advice, if you are looking for a reliable schedule, is to seek opportunities at a law firm or vendor that are steady (not necessarily full-time or even salaried), but places where you can roll from one project to the next. In addition to providing steady income, these sorts of operations can actually take the time to know you/your work product. Once you’re a known quantity, managers are a lot more inclined to make personalized decisions about your schedule.
In short, while it is certainly possible for contract attorneys to determine their own work days it is far from a guarantee. “Flexibility” can be a code word for “unreliable” and in the document review world there is no such thing as job security.
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 and be sure to follow Alex on Twitter @AlexRichEsq