Whether you are a recent law school graduate or a seasoned attorney between gigs, odds are good that you are intimately familiar with what “document review” is. Many unemployed attorneys have been dragged kicking and screaming into temporary document review projects because, well, it pays. No one likes it, but a lot of attorneys still do it. Here’s why you should consider avoiding it.
It’s no secret that document review projects are soul-crushing affairs. If you’ve never been on one, read Matt Ritter’s posts, and you will get the gist. They are sort of like a temporary stint in prison without the cigarettes and weight lifting; though the morale is roughly the same, I imagine. But the reason why so many attorneys reluctantly agree to doing doc review is that it is paying work. But that’s all it is: financial life support.
A lot of us have our stretches where we need some work to float us, and that’s understandable. But before you agree to your next project, think about what you are getting out of it, and—more importantly—what you are giving up.
It pays straight cash, homey
Yep, it does. Depending on where you are working, document review projects will pay roughly $20-$40 an hour. That’s pretty good money, and certainly a tempting offer for someone who hasn’t worked in awhile, or isn’t expecting to. But I imagine that if pulling down decent pay was the only goal you had for your career, you would have chosen trade school over law school. After all, welders make the same kind of money, they have unions, and, oh yeah, they get to MELT METAL WITH FIRE.
It makes sense to take one of these projects if you really, really need the money to hold you over. And that’s exactly the reason I have document review experience. But using these projects as anything other than a tourniquet is a costly strategy. There are two costs to consider when you consider the pros and cons of signing on to one of these projects: financial cost, and—more importantly—opportunity cost. So while you may be collecting a paycheck during your time at a discovery sweatshop, let’s consider what you aren’t doing.
You ain’t learning nothing
Let’s face it, these projects hire attorneys to review documents, but you almost never do any actual “lawyering” while you are working. The work is mindless, and that’s partially why it’s terrible. So while the document review work is not only detrimental to your sense of self-worth, it is also keeping you from developing any skills that will help you as an attorney. And that matters. It matters whether you are thinking about going solo or whether you are trying to get a job at a firm. Employers and clients generally don’t salivate at the idea of hiring an attorney with a year’s worth of experience clicking Responsive or Not Responsive.
Marketing takes time
If you are considering hanging your own shingle (or if you already have, but need some cash), remember that every hour you spend on a doc review project is an hour you are not spending on marketing yourself or your practice. Possibly the most important characteristic of a successful solo attorney is commitment to his or her practice. Part of this commitment is foregoing the quick buck now, and investing some sweat equity in your practice.
If you aren’t interested in going solo, but are more focused on finding a job, the same principle holds. Applying for associate attorney jobs, clerkships or anything else takes time and work. It’s hard to churn out good cover letters after a long day of staring at discovery documents. It’s even harder to go on informational interviews when you only have a half hour lunch Monday through Friday.
No matter what career goals you have, this axiom applies equally: your workweek is a zero-sum game. In other words, the time you spend on a document review project is time that you aren’t spending furthering your career. If instead of spending forty hours a week doing document review, you spent forty hours marketing your practice, networking, volunteering or applying for jobs, your long term prospects as an attorney will be much brighter… at least as bright as the flame on a welder’s oxyacetylene blowtorch.