Archive for December, 2007

Downsides Of Working Long Hours – Health Problems, Boredom, and Strange Schedules

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

With all this talk about the possibility and ramifications of legal outsourcing to English speaking, low labor cost countries like India, we forget that the downsides of contract legal work go along with it, as pointed out by this recent article about India’s outsourcing industry. It’s not just the work load and projects that may get sent over there, but it’s also the problems that go along with this line of work including tedious hours, a sedentary lifestyle, boredom, monotony, lack of social contact, sleep deprivation, lack of family contact, and a myriad of digestive and health related issues.

Those who are determined to maximize their contract attorney opportunities by exclusively working long hour projects will usually have to sacrifice some of their physical, mental, and social needs for the financial payoff. Even Indian workers in our contract attorney parallel universe over there will likely face similar health effects in the long term.

Working Long Hours Requires Substantial Trade Offs

It’s not easy working long hours sometimes. When you are coming in to work at 8 a.m. and leaving at 12:00 midnight, 7 days a week for many weeks at a time, there isn’t much time to do anything else. During those exhausting stints, everything else is secondary and placed on hold. What time is there left to do anything else? When you come home so late and have to sleep right away to get ready to wake up super early again the next day, there isn’t much time to socialize with family, pet the dog, or even to take care of routine household chores. Weekdays blend into weekends and merge back into weekdays without much differentiation. Unless you check the calendar routinely or start etching lines onto the wall to track the passage of days, each day feels pretty much the same.

Contract Project Amenities Are a Blessing And a Curse

Many firms and agencies that host very long hour projects (70+ hours) will frequently try to make it easier for workers to log those type of hours by extending office hours and providing amenities like free catering, reimbursed meals, internet access, free coffee, and even reimbursed transportation and parking costs. All of these extra benefits serve as a blessing and a curse. Without them, there is absolutely no way I’d personally be motivated or driven enough to work the extra hours. But when they are offered, the sirenic financial and convenient lure is difficult to resist. I find myself at the office and the review center at all hours, working away at my workstation for periods of time that seem endless. My regular fitness plans at the gym pretty much go out the window at that point and I live a very sedentary life while the project is underway. I’m only released from this voluntary servitude once the project is over. This is not really a complaint, but more of a social commentary. I guess the financial payoff is so lucrative that I’ve made the decision that any temporary health and social detriments are worth it.

Short Working Bursts Are Okay But Don’t Work Yourself Into The Family Split, Hospital, Or Grave

The article notes that India’s outsourcing workforce frequently face sleep disorders, heart disease, depression, and family discord. The industry is highly profitable but there is a high prevalence of psychological problems, bad diets, as well as excessive smoking and drinking. Since contract attorneys frequently work similar tedious hours and perform similar repetitive work, that might explain why we also face similar health and social problems as well. I guess that might help to explain one of the reasons why I’ve met many contract attorneys with weird, quirky, and mentally odd personalities.

But at least contract attorney work here is generally a daytime position that doesn’t pervasively require night shifts (although there have been 24 hours projects in the past). The Indians that perform outsourced jobs on the other side of the world have to contend with working flipped schedules that demand late evening shifts. Particularly for those Indians that work in the outsourced call center industry, they need to work at night to properly handle daytime calls from the United states and Europe operating in different time zones. I wonder if those in India who might be eventually called upon to perform legal outsourced work would be required to work such flipped schedules to properly coordinate with management activity originating in the United States. If so, they are in for a host of sacrificial problems.

But my advice to legal contract workers here is to try to keep your life in a good balance. Sure you’ll make a ton of money from working long overtime hours, but do take time off to exercise, stretch outside, and go outside for a quick breather. There are many gyms in the Washington D.C. area and although membership may be a bit pricey, I think taking an occasional break during the week to run on the treadmill and shower afterwards might do everyone some good. And stop smoking, it’s expensive and bad for you – but then you already knew that right? 🙂

Uh Oh, Your Project Is Over. Now What Do You Do?

Friday, December 14th, 2007

Projects come and go but it’s always a bummer when they end unexpectedly. I think as much as contract attorneys like to convince themselves that the project might go on and on for months or years, the reality is that many projects don’t last past 3 months, although some do. Many frequently end all of a sudden when you least expect it, so it’s best to be prepared for the inevitable.

But perhaps you’ve already laid out your financial projections based on the durational estimates given to you by your staffing agency. Haven’t you learned anything? These agency projections are frequently inaccurate and can’t be relied upon. Learn to trust your own instincts and the whispers you hear from the daily contract attorney rumor mill instead. To be ready for the unexpected but inevitable end, have a game plan to ride out the expected gaps between legal assignments. I’ve learned a few possible options and pointers after months working in the Town Town grind.

You May Want To Consider These When You Are Between Contract Attorney Projects:

  1. File For Unemployment Benefits Right Away – The second the project is declared to be over, file for unemployment benefits immediately. Even if you plan on seeking another project right away, you never know for sure – so it’s best to file just to be on the safe side. In D.C. there is a one week waiting period before your unemployment benefits kick in so it’s better to file earlier than later. The maximum $359 pretax you can currently receive in benefits per week goes a long way in helping you take care of unavoidable expenses like rent and mortgage. Don’t miss out on your entitlement.
  2. Interview With Agencies You Haven’t Registered With – It’s important to diversify your staffing agency portfolio. Don’t just limit yourself to the brand name agencies like Update or Ajilon/Staffwise, but branch out into the smaller firms like Delta Group or Solomon-Page. Remember, not all agencies have an equal hand in staffing specific projects so it’s always best to maximize your contacts.
  3. Search For Contract Projects – I recommend mass emailing all of your favorite staffing agencies to ask if there are projects currently available or if there are any planned projects in the pipeline. If you’re already registered with the agency, there’s no need to draft a fancy email, so just get straight to the point – what you’re looking for and when you are ready. I suggest emailing or calling daily if you’re adamant about rolling over right away.
  4. Search For Full Time Permanent Positions – If temp life is no longer for you, you can start your job search during your down time. Good luck, it’s an extremely tough market for attorneys now due to the over-saturation of law students and law schools.
  5. Take On A Few Pro Bono Cases – Have you considered taking on a few pro-bono cases with the DC Bar? It’s an invaluable way to get real world experience in legal practice, particularly if there’s a field you’ve always wanted to enter.
  6. Brush Up On the Law Or Learn More About Another Field To Increase Your Skill Set – Clicking away daily at your computer station, your legal skills will inevitably start to get rusty. It doesn’t hurt to take some time brushing up on the legal basics again. I always read my bar magazines, and enjoy tracking legal developments in the news and following legal blogs like the Wall Street Journal Law Blog.
  7. Register A Domain And Create Your Own Professional Self Promotional Website – Most attorneys are notoriously slow when it comes to math and computers. That’s probably one of the reasons why we all ended up choosing to attend law school. But if you ever intend to start a solo practice or perform some type of legal practice, it doesn’t hurt to start up your own professional website. At the very least you should try to reserve your chosen domain name before someone else of the same name does. Most attorneys use their own name in the domain address with “law” following it, e.g. johndoelaw.com (which interestingly is still available at the time of this writing). I suggest reserving your domain name and hosting it using popular internet registration sites like GoDaddy or DreamHost (the one I use), but there are many others.
  8. Chill, Relax, and Enjoy Your Time Off – I personally use the time I have off between projects as my built-in vacation time. Rather than rolling over immediately I occasionally like to take a few days or weeks off to unwind and rest my carpel tunneled right wrist from all that clicking. It’s one of the many curses and blessings of contract attorney work – although we don’t always get to determine exactly when we have time off, we have the luxury of having longer voluntary time off gaps throughout the working year.

Legal Staffing Agencies Offer Referral Fees and Working Bonuses, But Getting Them To Pay Up Can Sometimes Be A Challenge

Tuesday, December 11th, 2007

Pouring on the incentives is how placement agencies entice contract attorneys to submit themselves for hard to staff projects. I can always tell when the agencies are having a hard time filling a law firm’s staffing order. The job forums and listservs will be silent but then suddenly explode with an urgent flurry of post traffic with calls for contract workers. The posts will come from different agencies, all attempting to staff the same project and recruit the requisite number of contract attorneys for project submission before their competitors can. When agencies start touting their referral fees and project completion bonuses, you know they are getting antsy about losing the project to some other staffing firm. This is when contract attorneys should swoop in to snag the goodies.

Referral Fees and Working Bonuses Generally

Referral fees vary but are generally around $100-250 per attorney that you refer and takes on an assignment. The newer and smaller agencies tend to offer higher referrals since they need to find ways to steal workers from the big boys. Some of the larger, more established agencies like Compliance prefer to keep their referral policies intentionally fuzzy. If you ask Compliance about their referral rates, they will give you some spiel about how they don’t have a blanket referral fee and usually only give out referrals for certain projects. I find this case by case referral policy to be much too subjective and prone to nonpayment. I hope they will eventually adopt the more transparent referral policies that most of the other agencies offer.

Along with referrals, most agencies also offer billable hour incentive bonuses to encourage you to work more. The policy specifics vary but after you’ve worked a certain number of hours, usually around 400 on average, you are entitled to an 8 hour bonus payable at your usual wage rate ($35 an hour). Most of these bonuses are not automatically paid out so you’ll have to take it upon yourself to actually request them.

Actually Getting the Agency To Fork Over the Bonuses Is Easier Said Than Done

Although agencies like to advertise their referral fees and bonuses when soliciting for contract attorneys, they usually prefer to keep mum about their policies once you are on board. Bonuses are generally not paid out unless you specifically request them so it is your own duty to keep track of your referrals as well as your hours worked, based on the cumulative information found on your pay stubs. Thus after you’ve surpassed the requisite hours, be sure to alert your agency of your entitlement. It’s all part of the contractual bargain made to you when you took on the assignment, so you’re entitled to it. Don’t miss out!

Not all agencies are so ambiguous on this matter. I have to give credit to Special Counsel for their speedy payouts. I’ve referred attorneys to them before and they’ve always paid out very quickly, mailing me a check on the spot even though I wasn’t staffed on a project through them at the time.

Other agencies like Ajilon-Staffwise and Hudson require you to be currently staffed with them at the time of request before they will hand you your referral or billable hour bonus. I fail to see the logic behind this requirement, other than to make it harder for people to get their entitled referral/bonus checks. Don’t be so cheap, legal staffing agencies. We help stock your supply, so the very least you could do is provide the promised compensation rather than reinforce the money grubbing reputation many contract attorneys have of the legal staffing agencies. After all, it’s a symbiotic relationship and we need each other in this contracting business (at least until someone figures out a way to cut out the middle man). 🙂