The Viability Of Contract Attorney Work In Big CitiesNovember 21, 2014
The dream of “making it” in a large city (generally personified by New York) is a cultural touchstone, an easy reference point for those looking to tell a familiar tale. And this convention holds true for the legal profession as well — Biglaw is at its biggest in New York and the majority of the lemmings, err freshly graduated law students, flock to major markets (New York, DC, Chicago, San Francisco) in the hopes of chasing down those big paydays that make the exorbitant loans seem worthwhile. Historically, this had a trickledown effect to the contract attorney market as you’d find the biggest projects paying the best rates in these metropolitan hubs.
Document review is a big business, and an increasingly large percentage of litigation costs. A lawsuit in the 90s just didn’t involve the same amount of documents as current litigation does. All of the emails, contract drafts and meeting invites multiply like proverbial bunnies and it’s easy to see why clients are constantly searching for ways to cut those expenses. Sure technology-assisted review and predictive coding are becoming more reliable tools to cut those costs, and one day we will all have to reckon with our computer overlords, but what about the low-tech options out there now?
When in doubt move somewhere cheaper. It’s a solution familiar to American businesses, and one quickly building momentum in the legal field. While some have tried to go the way of call centers and international options, bar admission, management and quality issues all have to be worked through. And there are plenty of cheap options domestically.
We’ve noted the trend before — law firms hoping to stay competitive in discovery work opening up document review centers in Wheeling, WV or Dayton, OH. Or ediscovery vendors looking to undercut prices and still stay ahead of trends opening up centers in Birmingham, AL or Detroit, MI. And superficially this may seem like welcome news for those who happen to live there… until you note the plummeting salary. Hoping to make a higher hourly wage than Costco holiday workers doesn’t have the same ring of accomplishment as making it in the big city.
So what has been the effect of these trends on contract attorneys in the big cities? Where once there were multiple options and competitive salaries, now there’s mostly just desperation. One tipster writes that in Boston “virtually no projects are being staffed here.” The majority of job postings on The Posse List for NYC are all for the same vendor. It’s getting hard out there for those who still have dreams of the big city.
My own personal travels have taken me to some of these smaller markets. At first I was happy to pick up work in what I snobbishly considered a second-tier market, sure the pay was crap, but what did I expect. Then I started talking to some of the regulars. Folks from big cities hours away that got on a bus Sunday night to work these crap jobs for a week before heading home to their families on Friday. Finding other reviewers to share hostels or extended stay rooms to make ends meet. It’s unfortunate for those that find themselves in these situations, and with the law school debt I’m sure they have I know why they push themselves this hard.
It’s not just that folks go to law school expecting to be Clarence Darrow and find upon graduation that they have to become document reviewers, barely engaged in the practice of law. It’s that even those willing to do the grunt work of the law are finding themselves in untenable positions with wages tanking and opportunities drying up. This is the dark side of legal industry, and it’s only growing.
Source: Above The Law