This new "third tier" of the legal world illustrates the commoditization of the legal profession, which once offered most new entrants access to prestige and power, as well as a professional lifestyle. It also shows how post-recession belt-tightening is permanently altering some professions.
Responses to a June survey of top legal officers, conducted for The Wall Street Journal by the Association of Corporate Counsel, a bar association for in-house counsel:
- Approximately 34% of 876 respondents said their companies had used non-staff "contract" attorneys in the previous fiscal year.
- The most common reason for their use was given as "project cost management," by 29% of those respondents using contract attorneys. About 26% said they were looking "to satisfy the need for a specific skillset." Another 20% said their use was the result of "cost management" by a law firm.
- About 35% of 319 respondents said their companies typically paid more than $80 an hour for document review work by contract attorneys; 18% said they paid less than $40 an hour.
Source: Association of Corporate Counsel/WSJ Contract Attorney Use Survey
For 10 to 12 hours a day—and sometimes during graveyard shifts—contract attorneys sit silently in a big room, at rows of computer monitors. Each lawyer reads thousands of documents online and must quickly "code" every one according to its relevance in litigation or an investigation.
Supervisors discourage talking and breaks are limited. The computer systems count each lawyer's speed. Some law firms use their own contract attorneys, while others hire them through third-party agencies.
The increasing reliance on temporary workers comes as the industry continues to struggle from a downturn that has produced a glut of unemployed U.S. lawyers, including crops of indebted recent law school graduates. About 10% of all private practice jobs accepted by last year's law school graduates were reported as temporary, a steady increase from 5.4% in 2007, according to the National Association for Law Placement.