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Low-End Work in High-End Law

by: Noah Waisberg | June 16, 2011
2 min read

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece on the expanding use of contract attorneys. For the unfamiliar, contract attorneys are lawyers hired to work on a temporary basis, frequently on document review projects as part of large litigation matters. While doc reviews are an important part of litigation, contract attorney roles are not glamorous and the work is generally low-end:

For 10 to 12 hours a day—and sometimes during graveyard shifts—contract attorneys such as Mr. Aponte sit silently in a big room, at rows of computer monitors. Each lawyer reads thousands of documents online and must quickly "code" every one according to its relevance in litigation or an investigation.

Supervisors discourage talking and breaks are limited. The computer systems count each lawyer's speed.

The large-scale practice of law involves many intellectually-stimulating elements, but also a lot of unexciting work. The Journal article focussed on contract attorneys. But, only in terms of tasks (if not pay, opportunity for learning and advancement, opportunities to do increasingly-interesting work, as well as many other things that make a Biglaw junior associate job a good gig), Biglaw junior associates spend a lot of time doing work that feels similarly unchallenging. Signature page and closing room creation. Turning comments. Proofing edgarization. Document review of their own. Or even having to supervise doc reviews, including by contract attorneys. And though graveyard shifts seem bad, running three 12-hour "shifts" in a row is no fun either.

Improved legal technology and out- and in-sourcing should cover more and more of these low-end junior associate tasks, allowing Biglaw junior associates to spend more of their time on work that actually deserves to be billed-out at $300+/hour. Junior associates should be enthusiastic about this—as I learned while advancing as a Biglaw associate, the job gets much, much better as the work gets more challenging. Firms should be happy about legal tech advances too, not least because junior associates doing more interesting work will be more satisfied with their jobs and so more likely to stay, meaning less money lost on attrition costs. And clients should be very pleased at getting better value for their dollar. What this all means for contract and outsourced attorneys is for a different forum.

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