Reconsidering Review

As the demand for document review increases commensurately with the availability of electronically stored information, contract review work is earning new respect from the legal community.

Over the last decade, the increase in electronically stored information (“ESI”), such as email, instant messages, electronic documents and data from handheld devices, has drastically changed litigation. As a result of the notable rise in available ESI, the performance of first-level document review has become more complex.

Document review has become an integral aspect of the litigation process, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the total cost of litigation. In October 2010, the seventh annual Litigation Trends Survey, released by the law firm Fulbright & Jaworski, predicted a continued increase in litigation matters over the next year. The survey notes that 93 percent of U.S. survey respondents expected litigation involving their companies to increase or remain steady in the upcoming year, while 87 percent faced new litigation in the past year, and 83 percent in the prior year.

As a result, many unemployed and recently graduated attorneys have sought contract e-discovery work as a resource to buffer their employment gap. With a consistent supply of projects, some find the solution ideal in the struggling economy, while still others are finding that document review may actually hold promise as a long-term career path.

Yet while contract e-discovery work abounds, indicating that the legal market is stabilizing, there remain many jobless law school graduates and laid-off attorneys seeking gainful employment.

This is largely because of the concern held by some regarding their perceived assessment by potential employers, regardless of whether document review work offers long-term benefits and resume enhancement. Many attorneys fear, as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal argues, that document review work may offer “little chance for advancement, low prestige, a lack of steady work, stigma and a work atmosphere where breaks are limited and speed monitored.”

To better gauge the perceived benefits and challenges of contract attorney employment, Special Counsel conducted an internal cursory survey among attorneys that have recently been or are currently employed through Special Counsel offices across the country. Over fifty open-ended questionnaire responses were received. The results consisted of answers from some of our leading document review center locations, including Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas and other locations.

Attorneys that responded generally had between six months to five years of experience working as an e-discovery attorney, primarily through Special Counsel. Educational background varied, as did experience and legal background. Legal experience generally fell into three categories: (1) new attorneys with 1-3 years of experience; (2) attorneys with 10-20 years of experience who came out of large firm or solo practicing backgrounds and were between jobs or seeking to supplement income; and (3) attorneys at the end of their career or who were in the process of transitioning out of a legal focus in their career altogether.

For insight, we’ve included some of their responses below.

Question 1: What do you enjoy about being a contract attorney?

The most common answers among the respondents included flexibility, payment per billable hour and the introduction to new areas of law. The collective answers are best summarized in the quotation below:

“I appreciate the flexibility and general short-term nature of contract assignments. Further, being a contract attorney generally means that you do not have the normal stresses involved with working at a large firm (long hours, extensive time away from family, strict hourly billing targets, etc.).” (Dallas, TX).

Question 2: How do you feel that your experience with Special Counsel has and will benefit your career and your resume development?

The majority of candidate responses indicated some concern regarding the long-term benefit and applicable skills acquired from document review assignments. However, there was also positive feedback.

“The nature of the work, unfortunately, does not provide any transferrable skills. But I have learned more about practice areas such as patent and securities than I had previously. It also allowed me to make connections with other attorneys with vastly different backgrounds.” (Washington, D.C.).

“I don’t think it hurts right now in this economy. It’s certainly better than having a big empty hole in my resume, or applying for jobs without any work experience at all. I’ve already got a few years of legal experience, so I think what employers want to see is a willingness to work and a good work ethic. Working as a contract attorney demonstrates that.” (Philadelphia, PA).

“The foundation for most major corporate litigation lies in discovery and trial preparation. Coming from a small practice background, I had previously not been exposed to that kind of depth or complexity. My experiences with Special Counsel have allowed me to participate in major actions in the insurance, e-commerce, and pharmaceutical industries in topics ranging from anti-trust to taxation to intellectual property. I am hoping this range of experience will make my resume stand out for potential employers.” (Chicago, IL).

“Contract work allows a contract attorney seeking employment at a firm to stay “active” in the practice of law while looking for employment. It also allows an interviewing attorney to gain (at least tangential) experience to the early stages of litigation in a variety of industries. However, it has also been my experience that many hiring managers at firms are more interested in other types of credentials or experience a potential new hire has beyond document review.” (Dallas, TX).

“I believe that positive references based on diligent, professional work and conduct will always enhance a resume. I also believe that there are those who do not really understand what we do and that it is human nature to be suspicious of that which one does not understand. It is important how we describe our experience and what we have learned in the process.” (Washington, D.C.).

Question 3: What concerns do you have regarding long-term contract employment? Do you think a negative connotation is associated with e-discovery work?

The majority of candidate responses did indicate there is a perceived negative connotation with document review work, typically due to the fact that e-discovery projects offer little room for substantive work such as drafting, research projects and client interaction. However, many candidates seem to believe that the legal market is changing and will eventually broaden the types of contract assignments offered in order that big firms can reduce their client costs.

“As a contract attorney, you do hear people talk about how it is the “kiss of death.” So yes, I sometimes worry that potential employers assign a negative connotation to contract work. That said, I have known many contract workers who went on to secure jobs in the field they were pursuing so I wonder if most of the negatives are merely ephemeral and the stuff of urban legend.” (Philadelphia, PA).

“None. I think the legal industry is changing – it is being driven by client need for high quality legal services at an affordable price. I think that over time, the stigma around contracting will shift, and the legal profession will adapt to using contractors for a wider range of legal services.” (Washington, D.C.).

Question 4: Discuss your experience working with other contract attorneys.

Despite some concerns, all of the respondents indicated that the individuals with whom they worked on document review projects came from a varied background and included attorneys from all educational levels, professional and legal experience and differing personality types.

“Contract attorneys are far too diverse to be collectively characterized. I’ve met former partners, future associates, doctors, Ph.Ds, ministers, psychologists, athletes, actors, comedians, artists, people from all fields of law, people from all over the world, twenty-somethings to seventy-somethings. Some are in career transition, some are near retirement, and some are just starting out. A number of the smartest people I’ve met are or were contract attorneys, along with a number of the funniest, most creative, most interesting, nicest and most generous people I’ve ever met. The collective experience of and with this diverse group is the best part of being a contract attorney.” (Washington, D.C.).

In summary, the general feedback that we received indicates that there is no one type of document review attorney. Individuals on these assignments come from varied personal and professional backgrounds with different goals in mind for their future. In addition, there are some notable benefits to document review work including flexible hours, billable hours, the opportunity to work with large firms, networking opportunities and the like, while some negatives include unconfirmed assignment duration and project location.

Though some concerns exist, there does seem to be an underlying belief that any employment opportunity is what you make of it and how you use the opportunity to network. Further, many comments suggested that the legal market is changing in a way that contract work, whether document review or more substantial assignments, may be increasing and becoming more of a career option for some. Perhaps the reputation of contract work will be enhanced with time as more attorneys add this type of work to their experience and gain a wider variety of contract assignments.

As one contractor mentioned, “It is my belief that firms like Special Counsel serve a critical purpose by providing quality cost effective legal services to companies and firms. I truly believe that Special Counsel is on the cutting edge of how legal services will be delivered to corporate clients going forward.” (Atlanta, GA).

Kara Murrin is a Placement Director for Special Counsel’s Dallas, TX, office.

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