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Contract attorneys fill niche for firms

By: Todd Etshman//June 20, 2011

Contract attorneys fill niche for firms

By: Todd Etshman//June 20, 2011

Whatever they’re called, temporary, document review or contract attorney jobs often get a bad rap. The blog typically bemoans the conditions under which they work.

“It’s very much what you’d expect,” said New York City lawyer Jennifer Chung, a 2001 Albany Law School graduate who did contract attorney work for a little more than two years after a layoff in March 2009. “You know you’re just a cog in the machine. It feels like a modern day sweatshop.”

A March 2011 entry from “helpme123” on the temporary attorney blog said:

“This is what it’s come to, kids. Four years of college, the LSAT, 3 years of law school, the late nights studying until your eyes bleed, 100 K plus in loans, the bar’zam, the dues, the CLE shakedowns: all to beg for a graveyard shift gig at a whopping $30 an hour…. Trying to pay down loans at this rate is akin to using a Folgers can to bail out the Titanic: you’ll drown long before the bilge is emptied.”

There seems little doubt this isn’t a good economy for young lawyers to find a job, and the American Bar Association wants law schools to do a better job of portraying an accurate picture of the job market to prospective students.

“Most people would say it sucks, but for some it’s a legitimate choice of employment,”   Chung noted. “I think for anyone in transition or needing a flexible schedule, contract work is an option. You have some control over the projects you take on. One of the benefits of document review was that I rarely took my work home at night — when the day was done, I rarely had to think about it. I did know people who did it as a choice.”

Still, it’s a situation she said she never dreamed she’d be in. No doubt, it’s not what most young lawyers hope for when they finish law school but the different non-traditional circumstances may be just right for some.  

“There are so many stories out there on the marketplace,” said Nixon Peabody LLP Partner Christopher D. Thomas, who got his firm started utilizing a staff of contract attorneys for document review last year. The attorneys Nixon Peabody has used for document review so far aren’t the stereotypical first- or second-year law grads desperate to find work.

“There are some first- and second year-types, but the majority aren’t,” Thomas said.

For example, as the primary caretaker of his children, one of the attorneys needs the flexible schedule a contract attorney agreement can provide. Alternatively, some projects require longer than usual work days but the flexibility there is knowing it will end in a matter of time. 

Local attorney recruiter, Jennifer McCall of McCall Staffing Associates, said firms in many cities are hiring more and more contract attorneys to cope with the large amount of paperwork litigation cases can present. They’re also hiring a “second tier of non-partner track attorneys to do busy work,” she explained.

Firms typically find contract attorneys through placement agencies, meaning they aren’t likely to receive benefits.

The use of contract attorneys is much more prevalent in big legal markets such as Washington, D.C., and New York City than it is in smaller cities like Rochester.

“If you go to law school with the expectation of a career it can be devastating to find yourself in this [contract] situation. I did it because I had to,” said Chung, who had a mortgage and school loans to repay.

“We try to maintain a decent atmosphere, a decent environment to work in,” Thomas said. “Depending on our client’s needs, I’d like to expand it. They’re a part of our team and a real important part of what we’re doing.”

For the most part, attorneys doing contract work for a firm can’t expect to be given preferential treatment in applying for jobs that do come open at the firm but in Chung’s case, her contract work lead to a litigation associate position at the firm of Kaye Scholer in New York City.

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