Contract Attorneys

Lots of people in lots of professions believe they are underpaid. Teachers, nurses, McDonalds employees all have strong arguments as to why they should be paid more than they are. But the stark difference between the hourly wage a document reviewer makes and the amount the firm charges for that work — even when you account for all of the overhead costs — is enough to make anyone vexed. When the group of people you are annoying is a bunch of lawyers with too much time on their hands… well then you get lawsuits.

I think we officially have a trend here. We’ve covered other lawsuits by contract attorneys trying to make their nut. And while previous cases have tested the question of whether document review is actually legal work (and therefore exempt from overtime regulations) this latest suit has a more novel approach…

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If I spend time reminiscing about the wayback times — all the way back to when I was a summer associate — I am reminded that one of the benefits of litigation (at least as described to me by an older associate nearly a decade ago) was supposed to be that it was recession proof. Meaning that just when the deals that characterize good economic times were slowing down that was when the real litigation would begin. So you’d be busy with new cases created by deals gone bad while your friends that joined corporate departments would find themselves without work to do at the same time a firm might be looking to make some cuts.

Now that didn’t prove quite true — when it’s time for Biglaw to do layoffs, litigation personnel find themselves as much at risk as every other department. But it is accurate that we do see an uptick in litigation after bad economic events. After all, it was only about two years ago when nearly every document reviewer or contract attorney found themselves on cases dealing with residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS). Yes, those same deals that nearly crippled the economy spawned massive litigation that kept food on my table. It didn’t matter what firm, agency or even city you worked for/in all the big document review projects seemed to be about RMBS. Now that that boom is nearly over we are left to wonder — what questionable business practice will lead to tomorrow’s doc review boom?

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Ed. note: This post is by Will Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney turned psychotherapist. He holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work, and he blogs at The People’s Therapist. His new book, Bad Therapist: A Romance, is available on Amazon, as are his previous books, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist and Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy (affiliate links).

“I never thought I’d end up working as a contract attorney doing doc review in a windowless basement,” my client bemoaned. “But then I read that piece about the lawyer who’s working as a clerk at Walmart. At least I’ve still got it over him in terms of job prestige.”

Well, you know how obsessed lawyers are with job prestige.

There’s a phrase, “the Downward Drift,” that crops up in discussions of serious mental health diagnoses like schizophrenia, and/or chronic substance abuse. The idea is that you are afflicted with serious mental illness, or become addicted to a harmful substance, which in turn leads to a slow, inevitable slide downward in terms of social class. Before long, the wealthy, Upper East Side business executive suffering from schizophrenia and/or severe alcoholism finds himself jobless, friendless, and eventually even homeless, sleeping in shelters and begging for change.

Weirdly, the same phenomenon — the Downward Drift — affects people who acquire Juris Doctor degrees…

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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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Let’s say that you started your law firm a year ago, and your business is finally humming along. Meaning that while you’re not taking home a six-figure income, you’re no longer terrified of not making rent.  But lately, you’ve noticed that you’re working more late nights and weekends than you’d like, just to keep pace with the steady influx of cases, law firm administration, and ongoing marketing efforts needed to feed the beast.  Or, perhaps you’ve let your marketing efforts (like networking events, lunches, and blogging) slide because you can’t fit them into your schedule — but you fear that you’ll pay the price later when business slows. Or maybe you wind up working after hours simply because you’re too distracted by client calls and emails during the workday.

Back in the day when I started out, most solos who found themselves in this situation would either (1) suck it up and work more or (2) hire a newbie lawyer, paralegal, or receptionist, even though they might not have the revenues to cover a full-time employee. And in an extreme situation, some overworked solos simply stop returning client phone calls or timely filing motions due to lack of time and got hit with bar grievances. Today, however, solos experiencing growing pains have far more options to manage workflow and help transition to the next level. I’ll explore some of those options, along with the respective pros and cons, in this post…

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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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