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The Secret Life of Contract Lawyers

By now, contract attorneys play a pervasive role in law firm practice...so much so that they warrant their own Wikipedia entry.  And why not?  Not only does using contract lawyers keep costs down and reduce a firm's need to hire permanent help (whom they might need to lay off in slow times), but contract lawyers are a veritable profit center.  As we posted here, firms make as much as $100 an hour per contract attorney by marking up their actual cost and passing it on to clients. 

But for all we know about what it means to employ contract attorneys, what's it like to actually work as one?  That's the subject of this fascinating piece, Attorney at Blah (Arin Greenwood, Washington City Paper (11/7/07)) which describes the life of the contract attorney, first hand.

The article shifts between the author's personal tale of contract lawyering and commentary on the contract attorney perspective.  From the story:

My first “project,” as these assignments are called, was at a big law firm near the White House. It paid $35 an hour, 40 hours a week -- no overtime, clock out for lunch....We each had a computer; we were trained on the particular computer program we’d be using, then got clicking. Relevant. Not relevant. Not relevant. Not relevant. Two staff attorneys -- full-time lawyers hired by the law firm to oversee the temp document reviewers -- sat at a table in the front of the room, watching us click in this quiet, quiet room. Mostly quiet room. One of the two sometimes sent around e-mails that said things like:

“We notice that some of you are listening to music too loud on your personal stereos.” And, “We notice that some of you have long fingernails which are making loud noises on the keyboards. Because your job does not require the use of the keyboard, only the mouse, we are confused why we are hearing so much loud fingernail-on-keyboard noise.”

So what's the verdict on contract lawyering from the attorney's perspective?  Frankly, it seems mixed.  First, not all contract attorneys are in between employment or can't find jobs; as Greenwood describes, some like the freedom of temp work.  Second, the work while dull, is also easy.  As Greenwood writes:

This was the easiest job I’d ever had, the only job that was neither physically nor intellectually taxing, and I was making nice money. Every day was the same, every day was quiet, every day was a combination of angst and contentment, until the day that one of the two staff attorneys -- the more chatty one -- unexpectedly stood up and said the documents had all been reviewed, and it was time for us to go home. If it had been the other staff attorney sending us back into employment, I’m sure she’d have done it by e-mail: “We notice that there is no need for you to come to work anymore…”

Still, Greenwood suggests that there are far more lawyers who take contract work out of lack of options rather than by choice.  In part, that phenomenon is due to rising law school debt and a declining number of jobs.  Lawyers with over $100k in loans to repay can't afford to take a position outside of the law, and at $35/hr for a 40-hour week, contract work pays well for as long as it lasts (the lack of stability is another problem).  For that reason, there's a larger pool of potential contract lawyers than ever before.  Further, technology means that more documents are retained, which means that there's more to review. 

Not surprisingly, there's also discontent amongst temp attorneys about the cut that temp agencies take.  One temp, Joseph Miller, started a website, JD Wired to get temp attorneys to start thinking about their careers or where they can network and build skills.  Given the looks and quality of Miller's website, I'm guessing that he'll open enough doors for himself that he won't be a contract attorney much longer. 

Are you a contract attorney?  Do you think that contract lawyer positions offer a good opportunity to make money while you look for work or figure out what you want to do?  Or by institutionalizing the role of the contract attorney, are we dividing the profession even further, by creating yet another tier of attorneys in the hierarchy of the legal profession?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 8, 2007 at 04:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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