Alex Rich

Posts by Alex Rich

We spend a lot of time chronicling the lows of being a contract attorney. It’s the very bottom rung of the legal profession, but no matter how disrespected the job it is still an essential part of modern litigation. These jobs are rarely permanent positions so as contractors move from temp job to temp job there is an inordinate amount of terrible and just plain crazy jobs out there. Horrible working conditions, bad bosses and low wages are all par for the course, so it takes something really special to stand out.

This job posting a tipster sent in literally had my jaw dropping. So what job is flirting with minimum wage and has even a jaded industry insider like me shocked?

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Last week one of ATL’s newest columnist wrote about avoiding pain while sitting at a desk all day long. It’s filled with useful tips that are generally applicable for any desk job. But what happens when you are a contract attorney? You aren’t a permanent employee so there’s very little incentive for the law firm/vendor/client to invest in decent working conditions and no ergonomic expert is going to evaluate your workspace. As you move from project to project you find that the working conditions vary greatly. And, none of them are going to be luxury digs meant to help decrease the pain of sitting for twelve hours.

So how can you avoid the pain of a desk job during your time in the wonderful world of document review?

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The calendar says it’s spring. Though the schizophrenic weather we have had this year probably has you questioning even that basic principle of time-telling, it’s time to make plans for post-winter 2014. We are in the long stretch between Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day, and when work is getting you down thoughts drift to the siren’s song of summer vacation. Now that you’re no longer in school, that phrase doesn’t dominate your life quite so thoroughly, but planning to spent time sitting on a beach drinking something tropical can really get you through a tough day.

But how can you relax on a beach when you know you’re losing money by being there? Not just because that cocktail is an absurd $14 but because there’s no paycheck getting automatically deposited into your bank account while you lie on the beach. And while you know, intellectually, that as a temporary worker you are not afforded benefits like paid time off, the reality can still be a bit startling as you wonder how to relax while worrying about making rent.

So how do you enjoy your time off as a contract attorney?

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This column is designed to deal with all of the issues related to document review — and we’ve dealt with a bunch. Whether it is staffing agencies, fellow reviewers, or associates, there is no shortage of things to complain about when you are on the very bottom rung of the legal world. No one goes to law school thinking, “Oh, maybe one day I’ll get to be a document reviewer,” and that profound lack of satisfaction with their careers leads to a uniquely disgruntled set of workers.

All that is true, but sometimes there is reason to be disgruntled. In all my professional experiences, there is nothing quite as outrageous as the pure lies that are told to document reviewers. Sure, they may try to hide behind the inherent instability of the industry, but the thing that is really frustrating is the lies. Maybe you can never prove it as such . . . but they know, and you know, it is a blatant untruth.

As George Orwell once declared, “In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Thus, without further ado, I present the top four lies of document review:

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We all get frustrated from time to time; that is a seemingly normal part of every job. And I suppose it only makes sense that those of us that actually got ourselves through law school, and have the debt to show for it, but somehow find ourselves mired in the morass that is document review would be especially vulnerable to these feelings. Modern technology being what it is, there are now seemingly an infinite number of ways to deal with the sense of impotency: maybe you post racist and sexist invectives under an anonymous (read: easy to figure out) screenname, maybe you try to garner support for a union, or maybe you take to task those that you feel have wronged you, by posting a Craigslist ad.

This is a story about the latter. What does it look like when a contract attorney decides to flame on?

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This column has given me the forum to complain about a lot of things — bad bosses, staffing agencies, associates, the market in general — and its been great to get this stuff off of my chest (and is doing wonders for my blood pressure too). But I have avoided calling out my fellow doc review monkeys. Maybe it was a misguided sense of loyalty, after all I know just how bad it can be at the bottom of the legal industry. But no more. There are some things that you do that make us all look bad. So just stop. And for those of you in a law school that has just taken a tumble down the US News and World Report rankings, think of this as a list of what not to do in your inevitable future career….

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Is it legal work? That is the outstanding question in the world of document review, and it is one we have covered before. Well, it is hard not to. The cases being litigated to determine whether or not document review is actually the practice of law are likely to have profound effects on the modern practice of law.

If doc review is not the practice of law then there is, of course, the question of overtime, which is the point of the ongoing cases. If the exemption that legal work has from local overtime laws does not to apply to document review then the back OT pay will certainly make contract attorneys happy, but may have other unintended consequences. Opening this Pandora’s box may result in the document review market opening to non-lawyers, who without staggering law school debt may well be willing to accept even less money for the same work.

This question may define the work of a generation of lawyers, but is it worth losing your job over?

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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?

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The invisible hand of the market makes fools of us all. No, I am not about to launch into a screed blaming capitalism for all of my woes, I’ll leave that to the PhDs desperately seeking tenure track jobs. The reality remains that the ups and downs of the legal market have a large effect on the rank and file document reviewer.

I’ve written before about the ways regional markets can wreak havoc on contract attorney, but it’s more than just dragging down the hourly wage. Without the benefit of full-time employment, contract attorneys are seen as eminently disposable and are rarely provided with much (or any) notice before a change in their employment status. Projects are scheduled that never start or a month-long project suddenly ends in two days. It can happen at any time, it’s the nature of the business (God, if I had a dollar for every time that annoying trope was trotted out by a staffing agency or project manager to cover for their poor management skills, well, I wouldn’t have to review documents any more). But over time, as long term projects fail to materialize it becomes a reflection of the overall health of that market.

According to our tipster, what document review market is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2014?

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So… stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Man sues staffing agency and Biglaw firm for overtime — because document review isn’t really legal work. Man then applies to the EXACT SAME STAFFING AGENCY for more document review work — touting all his legal experience reviewing documents.

Staffing agency then requests sanctions.

Maybe it isn’t the classic tale of boy meets girl, but it is pretty entertaining. Though it’s not as convoluted as it may sound. Find out all the details, and which Biglaw firm was dragged into this suit after the jump…

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