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

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.

19 Responses to “How Much Do Contract Attorneys Make In Terms Of Wage Rate?”

  1. Underpaid Contract Atty Says:

    Isn’t it time that we get a raise? Contract attorneys are paid $35 (on average) an hour, while we probably get billed out for $150 (or more)! I think there’s something incredibly wrong with that. I know it has a lot to do with market demand and supply, but c’mon…$35?! In my opinion, I think contract attorneys should get paid $50 or more an hour. A friend of mine who works as a contract pharmacist makes about $60 an hour. $35 v. $60? I was too embarrassed to let her know how much I was making per hour. Does anyone else out there agree with me on this, or am I being too idealistic? I’d like to know.

  2. Temp Partner Says:

    The only way short of some type of successful collective bargaining effort to raise the wage rate is for contract attorney demand to surge. This would only happen if law firm/corporate activity picks up or if there are a series of major cattle call type projects that suck up all available temps in the likes of SBC, Cingular, or CBOE/CBOT. I thought Google/Doubleclick would help do this but the project was smaller and shorter than expected. With the market the way it is, I’m not too optimistic about the prospects unfortunately, at least in the short term.

  3. John H Says:

    I agree it is important to register with both big and small agencies. The Nationals are able to lock in major contracts and large companies because of their ability to offer smaller margins. The smaller firms do not need the volume to make their money so they are willing to pay more.

  4. Underpaid Contract Attorney Says:

    So John H, who are the “smaller agencies” you are referring to? And, wouldn’t it be better for firms to go with smaller agencies to save costs? I guess I’m not quite sure what the incentives are for firms to go with bigger agencies…Can anyone clarify?

  5. DC CA Atty Says:

    Yes, I agree, it’s about time we get paid beyond $35 an hour. I’m hoping for a big project to come to DC to soak up all the Contract attorneys. Hopefully, that’ll adjust the supply/demand issue, giving us some leverage to receive a raise in pay.

  6. Recent Law School Graduate Says:

    What exactly does document review/contract work consist of? How does it look on a resume? are teh skills transferrable into a full time job?

  7. CorrectionRequired Says:

    Your rate information regarding foreign language projects is incorrect. Common languages like Spanish and French receive $45 an hour + OT. Mid-range languages generally get $50 +OT. The rate for rarer languages, which include Scandanavian AND Asian languages is between $55/65 an hour + OT. Note that it is a misconception that Asian languages are rare. Just because they do not use our same/a similar alphabet does not make them rare. There are way more Chinese/Japanese/Korean people in the world and in the U.S. than there are Finns, Norwegians and Hungarians, for example.

  8. Gina Says:

    I don’t understand why you are earning at such a low rate as a contract lawyer. If you do good work and market yourself directly to law firms rather than gonig through an agency, I believe you can earn twice what you are earning as an hourly rate.

    Get to know those at the law firms with the authority to hire you and ask them to hire you directly. If their contract with the temp agency prohibits them from hiring you directly without paying a fee for a year or so, ask them to hire you after the year is up. And it’s especially helpful approach law firms you’ve never worked with before. Ask lawyers who are pleased with your work to refer you to other lawyers.

    I earn more than twice what you are earning and I am a contract attorney. I don’t generally do document review, however. I do legal research and writing most of the time.

    Best of luck to you and thanks for your terrific and candid website.

  9. Exempt Says:

    Has any other contract attorney been told that they are not entitled to overtime? My agency is telling me that and I’m not sure that this is true.

  10. Saraswati Says:

    Interesting, are the figures you mentioned, the ones you earn before (i.e. the ones that are charged to the customer) or after deduction of any tax or charges ? It would also be interesting to know if a quota litis pact is largely used or not.

  11. Steve Oster Says:

    Alex,

    The DC Court of Appeals opinion does NOT require that document reviewers be DC-barred or pending. Provided that the client is informed of the attorneys’ status, and the review is under the direction of a DC-barred attorney, foreign barred attorneys are perfectly OK. The opinion is not a model of clarity, which is the source of the common misunderstanding.

  12. Howard Gibson Says:

    The interesting question is what do the agencies get for their part in contract attorney work. My friend says she gets $65/hr and pays $35/hr, with OT. Is that a too big spread, do some temp agencies get as little as $50/hr and still pay $35?

  13. Sara W. Says:

    Your rates seem awfully low. I’m a contract attorney making $65/hr in the Sacramento region (billed out at $145/hr — insurance work). I have friends who work as contract attorneys who make far more — a friend in family law (granted, she’s billed out at $300/hr) in Sacramento making $125/hr, another friend making $110/hr in Portland (billed out at $225/hr), another friend making $80/hr in LA (bills out at $175/hr). Granted, we all have several years experience and choose to work part-time. I’ve heard from friends who are partners at some of the big firms in Sacramento that they have contract attorneys (10 years + experience and handling trials) who make $150/hr. It seems like the magic number tends to be 40-45% of what you are billed out at.

  14. Marc D. Says:

    Yes, I believe the industry standard is around 40%, or least it should be.
    @Exempt, there is no overtime requirement, as to what you are entitled to, that is another issue all together

  15. Joe Says:

    Attorney firm LAVIGNE, MARK & ROGERS LLC located in Manchester Connecticut is the worst firm to deal with when trying to run a real estate business. I went with Attorney Rogers at the time and he took over four months still working on the same thing that I had to stop and hire a different firm altogether. Be careful who you hire and make sure they are listed on the BBB website and check their credentials.

  16. Bryan Paschke Says:

    @Joe: BBB? REALLY? you are going to rely on a PRIVATE company that has been shown to give “scores” based on membership dues (won’t call ‘em bribes, that wasn’t proven)? A company with no actual power to police its members much less non-members?

  17. NYC Personal Injury lawyer Says:

    Informative Post…… But I think its too difficult to define the wages rate and rate is automatically define if you have a good deal in market.

  18. attorney Says:

    I agree with NYC Personal Injury Lawyer. Is there any other contract attorney been told that they are not entitled to overtime? still its difficult to define the wages rate. Good rate is always depending on a good market deal.

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