Work as a contract attorney usually involves sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen in order to review page after page of documents to determine which are relevant to a discovery request. The
work is pure drudgery. There are no benefits, no expenses paid. The positions tend to last anywhere from a couple weeks to maybe as long as a couple months. The work may be done at a law firm, at a company, or even in a warehouse. The attorney is typically forbidden to talk to the employer during the assignment regarding employment opportunities afterward.
Earlier this year The American Lawyer had a lengthy piece on contract attorneys:
Figures are scarce on the staffing of document reviews at the high end of the profession, but in last year's survey of Am Law 200 leaders, 78 percent said they use contract lawyers. Of about 200 clients surveyed the prior year by the Magic Circle firm Allen & Overy, 63 percent employed temp lawyers, with higher numbers reported in the U.S., the U.K. and finance.
Document discovery remains essential to the high-stakes deals and cases that are the
The finances of this hidden world aren't healthy. According to the Posse List, the national average rate for a contract lawyer has dropped from $38 per hour in 2005 to $27 today—a 40 percent decrease, accounting for inflation—while overtime pay has in many places gone from the standard to the exception. For a typical temp, that might translate into a $50,000 income, with $125,000 in student debt.
The Great Recession did more than create a lawyer glut. It also inspired legal clients to seek requests for proposals from temp agencies and e-discovery vendors. The result is a race to the bottom, with gigs ranging as low as $12 an hour. A McDonald's manager now does better than an average legal temp in Tennessee, according to Bufithis. A millennial Posse List member named Josephine Reimnitz says that, accounting for the cost of living, she did better as a nanny in Utah than as a $22 per hour contract attorney in Washington, D.C.The focus of The American Lawyer is millennial attorneys, namely that many of their job opportunities for younger lawyers are limited to these contract positions. But in reality even older attorneys face a job squeeze if they wish to change jobs. The knowledge and experience an attorney has accumulated during his or her legal career should be highly valued...and compensated. But those qualities are not. Rather, the only thing the new law firm is interested in is whether the attorney, if hired, will bring a substantial book of business with him or her.
There is no purer demonstration of the legal job market than what contract attorneys are paid. Talking to the recruiter last year, I was told that $23 is the market rate for contract attorneys in Kansas City. That $23 figure, sans benefits, is what employers have found to lure just enough unemployed and underemployed attorneys for a project. The notice I received yesterday on the Kansas City job was for $20 to $21 an hour. Although Indianapolis does not appear to have as many contract attorney jobs as Kansas City, I have heard of contract attorneys here paid as little as $15 an hour.
Is it wise to incur as much as $100,000 or more in student loan debt to become a lawyer and get paid $20 an hour? I don't think so.