Archive for January, 2008

Still Stuck On The Same Gig And Starting To Forget What It’s Like To Be Between Projects

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Contract attorney work, particularly when it only involves document review can be mind numbingly boring sometimes. If I didn’t pride myself on having several extra curricular and non contract attorney related ventures on the side, I think I’d go crazy. It really is the same thing day in and day out.

But yes, I’ve been lucky to have remained on the same project for so long – my current assignment has truly been the never ending project. I’ve had to continuously put off long vacations until the project’s over since well, in this line of work, you never really know when or how long your next gig will be. When the end date will arrive is anyone’s guess as I have given up trying to speculate on when that will be. This project has really exceeded my durational expectations so anything more is just bonus gravy at this point. I’m justing taking it week by week.

Despite My Occasional Appreciation Of The Profession’s Flexibility, It’s Been Nice Having More Than Half A Year Of Occupational Stability

It’s been such a long contract attorney gig that I’m actually starting to forget what it was like not being on a project, and having to periodically scramble ever so often to find assignments. Having this semblance of stability for more than 6 months now is starting to make me feel like I’m working a permanent job – but of course, in reality the ride can end at any time. Unforeseen and unexpected occurrences like the client company being bought out or other settlement type activity can easily halt the project on the spot and send us contract attorneys packing for home. I guess I’m just getting lulled into a perceived but illusory sense of financial continuity. But this has got to be the most laid back, least stressful project I’ve ever been on before. The associates are incredibly lax about production numbers and the off site location allows everyone to maintain a very collegial and relaxed working environment.

I almost long for something different to happen. I feel like Tom Hank in the movie Cast Away. Yes I have co-workers but most of the time I just come in, sit at my desk, put on my headphones, and listen to talk radio while I click away. Some of the other contract attorneys talk but I guess I’m one of the more quieter ones, preferring to only look up when someone wants to talk about the Express paper crossword puzzle or when people want to quiz each other from questions pulled from the communal Trivia Pursuit box. Clearly, it’s been pretty humdrum around here. Previously the project was much larger with more people to interact with but since a few months ago, the project has been significantly downsized with only about a quarter of us left. Strangely the end is still seemingly nowhere in sight and after speaking to the associates, it seems like none of the partners are in any particular rush to impose urgent deadlines to the case. Even the associates don’t seem to be particularly stressed or busy with work as I frequently find a few of them reading authoritative news sources like The Onion or doing online clothing shopping.

Since I’m a contract attorney doing document review, I’m in the back end when it comes to being in the know about the progress and status of the case. I basically just click until someone tells me to stop. For such a cushy job, the wage rate is remarkably high, but it’s starting to fall behind in terms of keeping up with inflation and wage increases in other sectors.

How Much Do Contract Attorneys Make In Terms Of Wage Rate?

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

The answer to this question is the same answer that every law school graduate and trained attorney should be prepared to quip for any question they are asked – “it all depends”.

Of course, whether contract attorneys are currently being paid fairly as a whole is another issue entirely. For the purposes of this piece, I’m just making a market observation. Although contract attorneys generally get paid the market rate for their geographical location, there are a variety of other factors that determine whether the offer rate exceeds or fails to reach the generally accepted standard:

  1. Geographical Location – Probably the biggest factor that determines the appropriate market wage rate and compensation for contract attorneys is where the project will be located. Big cities generally get the bulk of the labor intensive contract attorney work, thus they also tend to offer the highest wage rates and most perks.

    New York City and Washington D.C. both currently have the highest rates at $35 an hour with time and a half for overtime. New York City probably flirts in the neighborhood range of $38-40. Any parity with D.C. rates is probably due to oversupply caused by the abundance of city law schools that seem to graduate more and more lawyers every year. Certainly the lack of work due to the current economic recession is causing the job market to noticeably slow down. Disturbingly, many NYC agencies have been taking advantage of the slump by slashing rates, an ominous trend that is frustrating many contract attorneys.

    Los Angeles also offers comparable rates, although the city isn’t exactly overflowing with projects, and the lack of steady gigs always seems to put downward pressure on rates. The smaller doc review cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston get the lower end of the wage scale at around $28-$30 an hour plus time and a half for overtime. That’s likely due to the fact that contract project are not as abundant in those metropolitan areas. See this unofficial but handy wage and salary chart for more info.

  2. Job Description and Role – Most contract attorneys that perform straight document review get the standard rate for their geographical area. However for mega projects, individuals may sometimes be brought on board to serve as team leaders or quality control reviewers. They are not always guaranteed or given a higher rate, but when they are, the rate is usually a few dollars extra at around $37 an hour for D.C.

    Specialized projects that require foreign language knowledge and review skills on the other hand pay substantially more. More common languages like Spanish and French generally pay around $40 an hour. Slightly more obscure languages like Norwegian, Finnish, or Russian pay around $45-50. The premium, most difficult to staff projects involve the Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Asian language projects can fetch anywhere from $50 to 65 an hour with time and a half for overtime. If you are an attorney that can translate Asian language documents, I encourage you to price gouge your local staffing agency up to $70+ if you can. They will bend over backwards for you and more because your skills are a rarity and in extreme demand.

  3. Bar Status – Interestingly, even though the DC Bar has already opined that being barred in D.C. is a prerequisite to performing contract attorney work in the state, many D.C. agencies still continue to staff projects using non-D.C. barred J.D.’s. However, many agencies do express high preference for those with the proper D.C. license and most will refuse to pay the standard contract attorney rate without it. Expect to be either rejected outright for project submission if you don’t have your D.C. bar certification or be offered only a paralegal’s wage of about $25 an hour.
  4. Experience – Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, contract attorney work consisting of mainly document review does not require substantial legal experience. However, for those of you with more years of document review management experience, you may have more opportunities to be assigned to the privilege review and quality control team. Keep in mind that although it’s sometimes negotiable, usually you aren’t offered any extra compensation for the higher level work. That’s probably why some people avoid second level or privilege review work.
  5. Length Of Project – Longer duration projects tend to pay slightly less than those that have shorter duration, at least initially when agencies are fielding candidate offers. The rationale is that – what you lose in wage rate you gain in longevity. From my experience, most people tend to glaze over the duration aspect and prefer to lock onto projects that offer short sprints of high billable hour opportunities. It’s just something I’ve observed and is not necessarily a consistent occurrence.
  6. Size Of Staffing Agency – Due to their greater bargaining position, bigger staffing agencies are less generous about negotiating with contract attorneys over their wage rates and more willing to withhold benefits and posture. Small potato agencies have little choice but to negotiate sometimes. They can’t compete on brand recognition so they have to offer greater incentives to entice contract attorneys – thus they usually pay more. For a project that a large agency like Ajilon may pay the standard $35 an hour for, a smaller agency may be willing to shell out $36-$38 an hour. Go with the smaller agencies if you can, although it is true, the number of projects they have to offer simply isn’t as high as the big boys.
  7. Market Supply and Demand – When the market’s booming, contract attorneys rake it in. Unfortunately the boom has past and we are currently in a bust period as evidenced by all the recent law firm layoffs. The market is pretty bad right now. There are projects out there but most are for shorter durations and offering less hours. Also, expect to wait longer than usual to come across an offer. Without consecutive, multiple, and simultaneous demands for contract attorneys, wage rates will stagnate in the interim. However, when the market eventually picks up again in the near future and law firm business returns, demand pressure should drive wage rates up. That’s my hope. It’s happened in the past before and it should happen again.
  8. Specific Law Firm Managing the Project – Certain law firms are well known for running generous projects – Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom for one. They seem to have a reputation for providing projects that offer full meals, transportation reimbursement, and extended working opportunities for their contract attorneys. They also have a propensity to offer slightly higher wage rates for team leader type positions. Of course, it’s not always this way for every project they manage, but it’s just an interesting tidbit to keep in mind when you hear about projects.

The Bar Goes After A Contract Attorney For Overbilling – Hypocrisy Or The Right Move?

Monday, January 7th, 2008

Overbilling has always been a problem in the legal community among law firm associates, law firm partners, and even contract attorneys alike. Such matters have traditionally been either overlooked or summarily resolved internally due to the prevalent nature of the practice among all tiers of law firm practice from top to bottom. However, rather than starting at the top and addressing the pervasive padding and markup fraud among the high priced partners and associates at many of the big law firms, the disciplinary arm of the Illinois State Bar has decided to target one particular contract attorney for his indiscretions, sparking debate and denounces of hypocrisy.

According to the official bar complaint, the respondent contract attorney signed an agreement with Ajilon Legal Staffing to perform contract attorney work for the law firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw. The contract attorney was staffed onto a document review project that paid $35 per billable hour. His work was performed on an online document review system that presumably tracked his review activity. During the 2 week working period, the respondent submitted time sheets presenting that he worked a total of 135 hours. However, it was later allegedly discovered that he had only actually worked 51 hours and 45 minutes, quite a large discrepancy for such a short period of time. The complaint indicates he was paid $4,725 for his time sheet hours, but that he fraudulently overbilled by $2,913.75, improperly inflating his billable hours by more than 84 hours during that 2 week period.

My Thoughts – Yes There Is A Lot Of Hypocrisy Going On, But Unethical Behavior Is Still Wrong

As a preliminary matter, I think official bar sanctions against this contract attorney would be perfectly warranted if the facts are found to be true. If the allegations are verified and confirmed, it’s difficult to offer him much sympathy due to the specifics of the facts, although I personally feel the case should have been resolved internally. He allegedly overbilled by more than 84 hours in a 2 week period! We’re not talking about tacking on a lazy 1 hour or rounding up to the next 30 minute mark every day. The attorney overbilled by more than 10 full working days, an astonishing number. Calling him a modern day Robin Hood because he robbed from the rich (big firms and agencies) to pay the poor (um, himself?) is a tad misguided. We can find better ways to boost the wage rate and increase project compensation than performing such unethical activity. It’s not that I’m preaching against such activity, I just feel such activity undermines our objectives completely and only serves to make contract attorneys look even worse than some already view us.

However, I’m curious as to what motivated the Illinois State Bar to tackle on this particular case when there are much bigger fish to fry among the denizens of the large law firms where overbilling is a frequent way of life. For example, I’m currently on one of those projects that keeps getting dragged out with little end in sight. After a few conversations with the managing associates, it seems the law firm partners are in no hurry to rush the case so long as they can continue raking in the billable hours. I got the unspoken vibe from the associate that she had no problem with us dragging out our review and continuing to let the firm bill the client, a company that has continued to pay its legal fees without much protest.

If the various state bars wanted to tackle this growing billable hour inflation issue, rather than going after contract attorneys, their resources would be better served going after the chief operators, the law firm partners and senior associates that cave to the pressure of generating billable hours and profits. There is truly a lot of strange hypocrisy going on today in the legal world where deceptive markup practices are prevalent, but its members still talk about fair compensation and billing. While contract attorneys like myself are sometimes offered little in terms of professional movement and prestige – having to fight and scrape for every project and permanent offer opportunity, we are still expected to abide by the high strict standards of professional conduct among full fledge attorneys.

Articles like the ones discussed help to serve as eye openers for contract attorneys. Document review programs do use sophisticated metrics to track worker productivity and usage statistics, so if the firm wanted to, it could certainly verify the accuracy of billable hours. If you do things like round up your hours, it’s important to at least be cognizant that there is indeed a digital trail that is retained. Most cases do seem to go unnoticed, but outrageous violations are bound to be caught – such as the story of this one guy who decided to straddle two different staffing agencies that were staffing the same project. He somehow ended up being separately assigned to the same project location by two different agencies who were unaware that the other agency was also staffing him. The contract attorney ended up collecting two pay checks for some time but was eventually busted. I don’t think bar sanctions were levied but he was summarily let go. Fortunately for him, he was not working or barred in the state of Illinois.