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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.