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

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.

Chasing The Dream, But The Dream Has Changed – What Now?

January 4th, 2008

It’s been years since I graduated from law school, clerked, worked a few “real” attorney jobs, and yet I find myself now sitting at my workstation, pondering my situation. The world stream is passing me by and sometimes I wonder if I’ve missed it completely or whether I’m simply fishing in the wrong pond.

Reflecting On Past and Present Goals But Facing Reality

I am generally an optimistic person so it’s pretty difficult to get me down, but sometimes it’s not easy working as a contract attorney. The temp lifestyle is lucrative and stress free, but the uneasy instability can be hard to handle sometimes. It’s great to preach faith and resiliency, but sometimes reality can be rather harsh and unfeeling. Yes, I am a contract attorney. I bounce from position to position collecting a pretty stellar paycheck from week to week. Projects range from weeks to months to even years, but at the end of it all, I am still on my own. I don’t have my own legal practice and I don’t have a growing client roll to build off from. But therein lies the quandary I am faced with. With 3 years of legal education and the subsequent degree and job experience to show for it, why is it that I haven’t continued to chase my dreams then? The answer is – my goals and dreams in life have changed.

I entered law school with delusions of legal grandeur with the equivalent sense of reality enjoyed by the ostrich that chooses to plug its head into the ground. Upon acceptance of admission, I was immediately cocooned and safe for the next 3 years from working expectations and the real world. My goal was to study hard in law school, get good grades, join a journal team or moot court, and graduate with a perfect lawyer job all lined up.

Reality did not finally set in until my third year and second semester of law school, when one day I looked around and realized that I was in the wrong place. No I was not lost, but I came to the understanding that the practice of law wasn’t the lucrative and exciting profession I had naively envisioned. Gazing at my modest pile of student loans I wondered, was 3 years of expensive legal schooling really worth it? Perhaps my life would have taken a better turn if I had walked a different path.

We Can’t Go Back But We Can Make Our Own Paths From Here On Out

Eventually, we all have to come to grips with reality and recognize the cards we’ve been dealt. Reality is reality, and things can only get better not worse if we’d only take the time to look at all of the positive skills and experiences we have accumulated since the beginning.

I know contract attorneys come from all backgrounds. Not all temps have come to such a realization that the traditional legal rat race isn’t really going to make them happy. Some, and in fact many are still striving for their original law school dreams. If you are one of those chasers, I encourage you to keep striving higher to meet them and not grow bitter with your temping situation. Contract work will cushion your financial transition and allow you to use the opportunity as a stepping stone to a situation better geared to suit your dreams.

As for myself, the goals and dreams I started law school with are no longer mine. I look at my life now and I have many things to be thankful for. My monthly bills are paid and I have an otherwise healthy and enjoyable life. I have the abundance of time and freedom to pursue my non-legal side businesses and investments. Contract attorney work pays very well and I am not even close to wanting. While I might be honed in the art, I know now that I was never cut out to be a legal hustler in the traditional sense. I have other side ventures that drive me now. Talking to other contract attorneys and listening to their stories about their real estate exploits, interior decorating businesses, and even presidential campaign team aspirations – their experiences are reminders that I am not alone.

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

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? 🙂