Why Lawyers Are the New Sweatshop Workers

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Let's talk about the life of a contract attorney.

Contract attorneys are the new temps of the legal world, lawyers who move from job to job getting paid an hourly rate doing bulk, low skill work like reading documents and filling out forms. The positions are short term, never lasting longer than the needs of a specific case, and pay more than an average internship only by virtue of the fact that few interns actually get paid.

Although prices may vary, these positions generally pay $20 - $30 an hour, wages competitive with crippling debt to consider too.

The rise of contract attorneys is one of the starkest examples of the gradual collapse of the old order. Once, work as a lawyer meant entry into a solid, stable profession with good pay and reliable hours. Few would ever get rich, but even fewer would get laid off, and it came with the country club prestige of being a professional. When Bill Watterson needed a boring, reliable character to play Calvin's dad, he chose a lawyer.

That was then. Today, boring would be something enviable.

Since the economic collapse in 2009, the number of contract attorneys has exploded. Part of this is a consequence of belt tightening at many major firms. Although billables have gone down, prompting a bloodbath among young lawyers, major litigation still requires thousands of tedious man hours to pour over documents and search for anything relevant to an ongoing case.

Part of the problem is also a growing unwillingness on the part of clients to pay top billing rates for that kind of work. Most major firms pay entry level associates $160,000 every year for their work and charge their clients accordingly. Typically a first year associate will "bill out" at $300 to $400 an hour for his work, rates that clients are increasingly unwilling to pay for someone to read 10,000 documents and mark "privileged" or not on them.

This is especially true given the low-skill nature of such work. Having spent many hours on document review myself, the only thing stopping a college student from picking up the job for beer money is ABA requirements. While law firms rely on high numbers of hours charged by young associates to prop up their profits, clients are increasingly attracted to third-party contract shops offering to do the same work at nearly a quarter of the price. The result has been a quiet exodus of jobs from reliable if overworked full time positions to equally overworked migratory ones.

Over the past five years conditions for a contract attorney have become downright Dickensian.

Generally staffed by young lawyers, recent graduates unable to find jobs elsewhere, contract attorneys often work in massive warehouses or office-less office spaces where floor space is cheap and desks can be crammed in like chips a Pringles can. Lawyers file in to work 12 hour shifts, often overnight, scanning tens, even hundreds, of thousands of electronic documents for key words and phrases on software designed to grade you based on speed. Those grades matter in an industry where every job is temporary and your next one could be months away.

Silence is encouraged by supervisors who see no need for collegiality in a workspace defined by volume and attention to detail. As the legal blog Above the Law noted, employers even resist paying overtime, somehow insisting that employees who work in a parking garage, "have to ride freight elevators up 20 floors to use the restroom" and "bring in blankets and coats when it's cold" still count as independent professionals.

Open letters on this subject have sometimes ended on lines such as "we are human, and we do this work for our living."

When people feel the need to assert their own humanity in protest of their working conditions, something has gone terribly wrong.

Worse, though, is that this may be where the legal profession is headed.

By now, most lawyers have gotten used to the fact that the old ways are dead. High unemployment and the rise of the smartphone (née Blackberry) have killed what little boundaries remained in a profession redefined around profits. Over the last several years, some optimists have tried to report growth in legal hiring, and that's true up to a point. Unfortunately, it's true in the same way that turning down the flame on a hot stove makes your hand hurt slightly less.

Although hiring is very slowly ticking up, much of it now comes in the form of these underpaid, contract positions. According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), about 10% of the graduating class of 2012 works in positions defined as part-time, more than double the rate of 2007. Yet in a market where only six in ten of those graduates get to use their degrees at all, this still marks a perverse form of success.

Although the rise of contract work has held steady for the past couple of years, the forces driving it have not. Demanding clients and the obscene amount of paperwork involved in modern litigation mean that the need for high volume, low skill work will only continue to grow. The crippling amount of debt pushed onto students who often enter law school genuinely wanting to do public good means that they will continue to take these jobs as opposed to starting their own firm or working for (somehow) even more low paying public interest.

These sweatshop-like demands of time and energy mean that more and more young lawyers will get trapped into chasing each paycheck, often too tired even to look for something different when they get home. The hope is usually that working as a contract attorney, especially if you've been hired directly by a firm, will lead to a full time gig. Sometimes that comes true, but usually it doesn't.

Unfortunately, the reaction by many people is often to sneer "screw 'em, they're just lawyers." But these are young people, students generally in their mid to late 20s who went to law school, because they wanted a chance to work hard and build a life the way they were taught. They studied in high school and went to college. They listened to friends and advisors who told them that more education is never a bad thing and went on to law school, where, again, they worked hard and got their degree.

In other words, these are people who followed the rules and didn't want anything more ambitious than a chance to work hard and make a living. Instead, they're getting sub-basement warehouses, seated at terminals so close you can sometimes raise one arm and touch the person sitting next to you.

It's heartbreaking to see this happen to my former profession, the same one that gave us Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow and Allen Shore. Lawyers wrote the U.S. Constitution, and they drafted the Bill of Rights. Individuals who need help against rich corporations and innocent ones accused by the overwhelming power of the government turn to lawyers.

When Shakespeare wrote "the first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," he did so as the first step of a tyrant who believed in might over right. There's a reason it's one of the first pieces of advice real-world dictators follow when they come into power.

Attorneys represent rule of law and equal justice for everyone in this country, and even if imperfectly they defend that idea every time they set foot in court.

The law is a calling, and it deserves better than this.

--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.

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