It’s no secret that the legal job market right now is pretty awful. Some lawyers, unable to find a permanent job and unwilling to hang out a shingle, end up as contract attorneys: temporary help, reviewing discovery documents in complex litigation. These people spend their days looking at electronic documents on a computer screen, searching for key terms. Their work is reviewed for speed and accuracy, with the primary focus on speed.
“Jennifer” and “Howard” (pseudonyms, at their request) are two such young attorneys. After law school, neither was able to find a job, nor did they feel qualified to go into solo practice. Each has been looking for permanent employment for several years, and temping all the while. As one would expect, neither Jennifer nor Howard is especially thrilled about their current employment. The pay rate for doc review in the Twin Cities is around $23 per hour – significantly down from a few years ago, and the amount of work has dropped at the same time. Overtime used to be freely given, but is now rarely authorized. Projects are fewer, with pressure to keep them as short as possible. Portions of some review projects are sent offshore to India. Howard reported that, despite being signed up with six different agencies, he only worked for four months in 2009. Both had significant scholarships for law school, so neither is dealing with the massive student debt that many new attorneys have. “I don’t know how you’d begin to make sense of this if you had $120,000 in student loans and were making $30,000,” Jennifer said.
We talked at length about their job searches. Neither Howard nor Jennifer went to law school hoping to work in a big firm. Although they went to different law schools – Howard in the Twin Cities, and Jennifer in a neighboring state – they both saw their schools’ career services offices as single-mindedly focusing on OCI. “Everyone else gets told to network,” Howard said. “The schools really need to work harder for the other 97%.” Jennifer agreed: she has turned to her undergraduate institution for career assistance, and is finding that school to be far more helpful than her law school has been.
It’s not all doom and gloom in the doc review world. Both Jennifer and Howard have made friends while doing doc review. Howard’s found a smoking gun or two, and they laughed about the inappropriate emails people send from work. There’s no pressure to work after hours; you truly leave your work at the office. If it were steady work, Howard said it’d be great; Jennifer would find it tolerable. Unfortunately, the work’s not steady, nor is it reliable, as litigation can settle at any time. Both Howard and Jennifer have been on projects that they were told would last for months, only to have the cases settle in weeks.
In the end, Jennifer said, “I retain hope.” Both continue to look for employment, and take doc review projects as they appear. Howard is considering going back to school, hoping that additional training will complement his law degree and help him find his niche in the practice of law. Jennifer has also thought about returning to school, but is hesitant to take on more debt. In the mean time, she’s expanding her job search, and continues to try to build connections that will lead to employment. “It’s a slow process to getting to something better,” she says. “I will get there.”