Document Review Projects Are Not All Equal

Last week, I had the rare opportunity as a contract attorney to choose between two different document review projects that were offered to me by two of the major legal staffing agencies in Los Angeles. As, a contract attorney, you can and often do go months without any document review jobs and then, all of sudden, many contract law positions staff around the same time. So, if you ever find yourself in this position of deciding between two contract law jobs that are both for similar document review projects, here are a few things to consider:

Contract Attorney Hourly Rate

Pay rate is obviously critical for everyone, especially since the rate for a contract attorney doing document review has gone down in recent years. Currently, in Los Angeles, the hourly billing rate seems to have settled anywhere from $29 to $40 an hour, but the majority are at around $34/hr. At the current hourly billing rate of $34/hr, for a 40 hour work week, your take home pay is usually around $950. For the lower rate, contract law projects of $30 an hour, your take home pay is closer to $850. For most of us contract lawyers who are buried in law school debt, this is not insignificant difference.

Is the Contract Work at the Firm or Legal Staffing Agency

Onsite vs. Offsite: Both have their pros and cons. Working on-site (at the law firm) usually comes with the perk of less oversight from the staffing firm, nicer offices, better parking options, cafeterias, coffee machines (tiny perk). However, there are occasions where the firm’s own coordinator is a frequent visitor, which keeps people on edge a bit. Also, there is that feeling of being a second class citizen to the full-time attorneys who you walk by in the halls (as a former Big-Firm attorney, I am acutely aware of this feeling, but it could just be my imagination).

Offsite (at the legal staffing office) can offer the advantage of not having to deal with anyone at the firm which can also be beneficial. For example, some contract lawyers need flexibility: some have auditions or need to be home early to pick up their children. The staffing coordinator is way more likely to try to allow for this flexibility, since they are the recruiter that probably hired you and plan to have a long term relationship with you. From experience, offsite jobs overall seem slightly less stressful. One major downside I experienced recently was no internet. This can happen on or offsite, mostly because the client firm requests it for security reason. Most of us need to be checking our email, the news, etc, and it can be very difficult to be disconnected for the entire day. Sometimes, the firm will compromise and allow a single computer to be used for all of the document reviewers with internet capabilities. If you know in advance that one firm or staffing agency doesn’t allow for internet, and you have another option on the table that allows internet, go with that one. Trust me you will be much happier, unless the pay is significantly higher in the internet free black hole.

Deadline: Will there be any Overtime?

The time line: If the client firm is answering a subpeona, for example, and are on a tight deadline to respond, they may need the document reviews to work fast. This sometimes simply means that there is more oversight and more stress because the client wants the job done in a sometimes unreasonable time frame. Or it can mean a much, much higher payday in the form of overtime.

Overtime is the hidden gem of the contract staffing world. At least in California. California state law mandates that anything over 8 hours in a day is overtime and pay is time and a half. Anything over 12 hours is double time. When a document review is running short on time, the firm often allows for overtime. Even if its only a couple of days of overtime, it can make quite a difference. If the firm allows overtime for the last two days of a week for 3 extra hours a day (they rarely let contract attorneys get to double time), that’s 6 hours times 50/hr = an extra 300 dollars on your paycheck. Most document reviewers I have met love to regale colleagues with tales of projects past where the overtime poured in.

Length of Project

Finally, there is the question of will you miss out on a more lucrative project by taking the first one offered to you. There is always a bit of gaming to be done because nobody ever really knows when the next project will come in. Many legal staffing firms inform you about a project only days before the document review is set to begin. Sometimes, the document review falls through just as quickly for a variety of reasons: Case settled, other legal staffing place got the job, the law firm decides it only needs two document reviewers instead of ten document reviewers.

If you take a project that is set to last a month, is that better than a project that is set to last 3 weeks. The answer isn’t always yes. When the 3 week project ends, another much longer project could pop up and if you are stuck on the other project, you get left out in the cold, while your colleague take the covet spots on the new project. Since, there isn’t really a “right” answer because of all the uncertainty in the contract attorney world, my advice based on what I’ve seen is to follow the old saying “one in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Always take the “100% guaranteed to start tomorrow 2 week document review” vs. the “we might have a big project starting next week, just sit tight until you hear from us.”

Hopefully, some of this advice will come in handy if you find yourself in the position of deciding between two contract law jobs.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jollyuk/1989719848/)

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  • http://www.totalattorneys.com Kevin Chern

    Nice pointers, Matt. One problem that many contract attorneys and solos have is the tendency to bite at whatever comes their way. When possible it’s also a good idea to weigh the pros and cons with any new client or freelance job (not just in comparison to another current option), because even though immediate benefits may seem good, the longterm negatives could hold you back from better opportunities down the road.