Contract Attorneys

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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‘I know it’s hard, but at least you’re making about $14/hour!’

The value of an attorney isn’t what it used to be. While you’re all ravenously pouring over the U.S. News Law School Rankings to figure out which six-figure law degree is closest to its face value, it’s a good time to check out Craigslist and see exactly how rough newly minted lawyers have it out there. Unless they’re willing to hang up their own awesome shingle, that is.

Contractors are struggling to pay off their loans collecting paltry hourly wages, and now there’s a firm willing to pay a young lawyer even less…

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It’s a tough month for Mike Bloomberg. First his vaunted stop-and-frisk program is gutted and, despite his protestations that it was necessary, serious crime has dropped. And now a key component of his old company that he worked so hard to keep inhospitable to organized labor may be unionizing.

At least he has a few billion dollars to keep him from getting too sad.

But in the meantime, the process of setting up a union continues at Bloomberg Law. Can lawyers really unionize? What might this mean for the profession as a whole?

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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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