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The Disturbing Side of Life as a Contract Attorney

Yet another exposé has emerged on the daily grind of the contract attorney, this time in the December issue of the ABA Journal, of all places. (H/T Rees Morrison at Law Department Management Blog). The article offers the usual overview of a contract lawyer's life, from the drudgery of spending long hours reviewing documents; to the stress induced by a lack of job security, since an assignment can end on a moment's notice; and embarrassment over being relegated to shuffling papers despite being highly educated.

Though I've heard all of this before, I found two aspects of this article particularly disturbing. First, the anonymous author openly admits that he or she lacks incentive to work quickly, preferring to run up the client's bill to keep the assignment going a few weeks longer:

If I review 100 documents per hour (a very fast pace), I get paid the same hourly rate as if I review 30. More­over, each project consists of a finite number of documents; so the faster I work, the sooner I am out of a job and need to start hustling for the next project.

“Don’t work us out of a job,” a veteran contract attorney once derided me in private after I reviewed too many documents on the first day of a new project. And the firm is usually OK with this attitude; in my experience, speed and accuracy have always taken backstage to billable hours.

Here, it's tough to blame the contract attorneys for lack of diligence when the firms themselves apparently don't care about racking up the clients' bills. Monkey see, monkey do.

But what's even more disturbing than this ethics-void is the author's complete sense of hopelessness: Despite having a JD, he or she believes that there's no choice but to endure contract work until he or she is debt-free:

I am considering going back to school and leaving the legal profession, as many contract attorneys before me have done. But it will probably take five to seven years before I am debt-free.

So for now I’ll put up with the arrogant, degrading looks from paralegals. I’ll deal with small bathrooms, cockroaches in the review centers and over­zealous supervisors. I have no choice. It’s a harsh reality. Welcome to my life.

It's difficult for me to understand how someone with a law degree could feel so dis-empowered. Law school didn't always teach us to be proactive, but somewhere buried deep in the cases that we read as law students,  we saw examples of other lawyers using the law to change lives, to make deals, to effect justice. Does the nature of contract work simply numb lawyers into submission and make them forget why they went to law school in the first place? Or did many go for the wrong reason -- to make lots of money -- and now find themselves paying the price? Please share your insights below.

For more discussion of this article, visit the Temporary Attorney Blog.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 9, 2008 at 02:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)


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