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Document Review – the legal profession’s dirtiest secret (aka – the Legal La Brea Tar Pit)

I went to a law school with decent standings and a good reputation. As with all law schools, we had free lunches and presentations by various attorneys touting career pathways and as always the odd shill trying to sell something. What I never heard once from law school was about document review. The only way you hear about it is from other people who have been mired in the worst position law has to offer.

For the uninitiated, I’ll give you a short(-ish) primer. First off, you never call document review ‘document review’ on your resume… it is Contract Attorney. It makes it sound almost legitimate. It is almost without fail an hourly position, whether it is in-house at a law firm or contracted out through the big clearinghouses of document review (eg. Special Counsel [the legal hiring wing of Adecco temp services]; or Hudson Legal). Law firms do technically hire a salaried contract attorney position (E-DAT attorney), but it is as the lowest level minion associate who will spend his days looking over the product of the hourly document reviewers, and often managing them. One of the lies the headhunters use trying to get document reviewers is to tell people that in some long ago forgotten time there was this one guy, we think, who worked in document review for a law firm and they liked his work and hired him as an associate. Do not believe them. Tattoo it like in Memento somewhere on your body or maybe the back of your eyelids so you never forget… they are lying to you. There is no promotion potential because any law firm that smells the heady stink of document review about you will pass over you faster than your resume through their shredder.

Anyway… although they would prefer that you have passed the bar, sometimes they are happy to hire you if you only have a JD. You see the work you will be doing is mind-numbingly repetitive, monotonous, and imbecilic… so no bar is needed. The oft given reason for wanting the document reviewers to have passed the bar is to ‘make sure privilege is maintained’. You will also hear the odd story here and there of someone who managed to lie about being an attorney and working as a doc reviewer because the clearinghouses don’t all check credentials (the crap stories told by doc reviewers about their jobs are usually all true). Why would someone lie? Well it beats working at McDonalds, but the mental effort required is the same. As a doc reviewer you can make anywhere between $25 – $75 an hour depending on what part of the country you live in, and whether you natively speak some very obscure language. Unless you natively speak Urdu, you will be making about $25 an hour.

Usually the documents you are looking at involve a single suit between 2 (or more) larger companies that have a lot of money. One side initiates discovery, which causes the other side to send around a paralegal minion to collect every scrap of paper produced by the company in the last X years and duplicate everyone’s hard drive and email. This then goes to a scanning company who puts it up into a huge database of potentially millions of pages of information. You as one of the faceless document reviewers get to go through those million pages one by one to determine if there is anything in them that is relevant to the hasty description of the case you hear on day 1 of the project. At the end of this, it gets turned over to the other side… who in turn hire document reviewers to go through the documents to see if there is anything relevant to the case as they see it, they then do the same for their discoverable papers and turn those over to the other side who then also has to look through those. Confused yet? Think of it sorta like your favorite episode of Law and Order when the evil corporation tried to drown Jack McCoy in discovery paperwork and it shows his whole office filled with file boxes. Now multiply that a hundred fold to the point that it could fill a mid-sized warehouse and you have an idea as to the scope of it.

So I’ve been sidestepping what you actually DO for document review… Generally you sit in front of a computer. A program of varying user unfriendliness with the worst GUI you will ever see will pull up a crudely scanned image of some piece of paper turned over in discovery. You will use all the knowledge you have garnered through countless hours of law school classes to look at that email saying “hey Bob.. how about lunch tomorrow?” and determine if it is a relevant document. Now this is somewhat simplified, more often you will end up looking at daily sales numbers of an individual widget repeated over and over for the last 10 years. It amounts to roughly the same thing for our purposes here, and you will also still see the ‘Lets Have Lunch’ emails regardless. If it is potentially relevant, you then have to decide HOW it MIGHT be relevant and whether it MIGHT be privileged. And you can only describe your opinion for this through a very limited number of check boxes with helpful descriptions like “Sales pre-purchase order”.

So, you’re thinking to yourself, “sounds boring but it doesn’t sound horrible”. Well, we haven’t hit why it is really so horrible just yet. You see, document review is not so much a real discovery technique as it is a delaying tactic to try to cost the other side as much money as possible. And all sides involved know this. If you remember back to your Civil Procedure, ‘difficult’ discovery costs are shared equally by both sides. So the more money you can throw at the problem, the more money the other side is also required to throw at it. For a huge company, flushing 10 million on a discovery that produces nothing means the other side  has to reimburse you 5 million; which could easily bankrupt small companies… unless of course the other side also flushes away 10 million on their side of discovery, in which case they don’t have to pay you back anything. It becomes a game of brinkmanship.

But that is the macro scale, why is it so bad on the micro scale? The corporation is paying the law firm, who is paying the Clearinghouse, who is paying the document reviewers for the E-Discovery. (Sidenote: consider the markup to the corporation for 1 hour of E-discovery in this situation). Well, we all must keep up appearances of respectability to the court that we are doing something legitimate, so something must be produced. The law firm will have 2 different instructions for a given E-discovery, the one they give the Document Reviewers explaining what is relevant, and the one they give to the E-DAT managing associate of the discovery for how they would like the aggregate results to end up. What this means is that the law firm already knows how they want the results to look before looking at the documents… and it is the responsibility of the E-DAT attorney to wrangle the document reviewers to produce something which resembles this fiction. So even if every document is irrelevant, if the firm wants to bury the other side in paperwork, the E-DAT attorney will tell the document reviewers they need to find the documents they are looking at more relevant… or you’re fired.

Oh, I forgot to mention that. Document Review takes a page from the Japanese style of management book… everything is couched in the terms “or you’re fired”. Show up on the weekend, work on Christmas, work a minimum 60+ hour week with no overtime pay, you are taking a lunch break when other coworkers eat at their desk, no talking, no phone calls, no music players… basically you should consider yourself to be flexible furniture that the company owns. You are also timed, and every metric about what you are doing is recorded and looked over every night. If your numbers are down, much like in Office Space, you will have 3 managers you never knew you had come over to talk to you about it. And then threaten to fire you if you don’t improve.

I know you think this is hyperbole. It is not.

Anyone who is happy with these positions is someone who should never have become an attorney in the first place. This is also the dumping ground of the 3rd and 4th tier law graduates, sad but true. Easily 9 out of 10 are from lower tier schools. Consider what your future holds before blindly accepting your admission. I am sure I will write more on E-Discovery later… but I am too depressed to continue at the moment.

The top 10%?

I imagine this will sound like sour grapes (but hey doesn’t the whole blog anyway). I wasn’t in the top 10%; didn’t even break the top 25%. I will say in my defense, I wasn’t trying to be for many and various unrelated reasons. Everyone in law school has heard that you need to kill yourself to be in the top 10%. You see the summer internships which require top 25% standing or higher… You want to be Order of the Coif so badly you can taste it (I had never even heard of this until graduation day when everyone started asking why some people were wearing dots on their hat). Does it help? Sure. Can’t hurt. But herein is the interesting side of it as well, and while I am sure it doesn’t apply to everyone, it’s strange how often it does apply.

At one point in law school I was dating someone who was an attorney at one of the largest and most profitable law firms in the US. Over dinner one night I made a comment about how I wasn’t in the top 10% and they laughed and said don’t worry, you don’t want to be. They told me that their firm likes to emblazon on their propaganda that they only hire the best of the best and that 99% of their new hires  were in the top 10% of their graduating class etc. etc., but what they don’t put on their pamphlets is that they don’t keep them. They hire them and either they quit before a year is up, or the firm lets them go. They told me the average time the top 10-ers last is 9 months. Their particular office had, in the many years they had worked there, kept only 2 new hires in the top 10. EVERYONE ELSE WAS A LATERAL (much much more on this in later posts).

This seemed like the opposite of everything I was being told in law school. They then told me that basically it boils down to this, a lot of the same people who excel academically are unable to use that knowledge and ability to spew back a professor’s inanities into a beneficial job skill. Professors in my law school (particularly some of the bigger tools in that toolbox) liked saying that they weren’t teaching us to be lawyers or pass the bar… they were teaching us to think like lawyers.

One of the main things this attorney told me was that many times the very top people in the class are effectively socially retarded. Think aspergers… gifted academically but not so much socially. And the legal profession is first and foremost a service industry in which you need social skills. I thought about the top person in my class and it fit. They were a freak and a half and walked through the world with no concept at all of what was socially acceptable. So was #2… and I started trying to think of where the dividing line ran in my class for where the normal people started. It was an interesting thought experiment.

To illustrate the point, They told me a story of a top 10-er in their office. This guy had been hired from a summer position to be an associate. Great academics and all the right stuff on the resume, but he was a bit odd. Anyway, his work was acceptable and they could give him projects and they would be submitted at the deadline as needed. Apparently people started seeing him less and less at the office, but the work continued to be done so he was soon forgotten. Eventually a custodial worker in the office approached a partner and said they had an issue which needed attention. The custodian requested that the associate in question stop defecating into his office garbage can. (read that sentence again…) The partner was obviously very concerned and went down to the associate’s office, to find that the associate had moved into his office and basically, had not left the room in many many days. The associate had a mental breakdown a couple weeks prior and no one had noticed. The EMTs actually had to forcibly restrain him to get him out of his office.

One of the other great things to take away from this story is that this large law office cared so little for their associates that one of them could go insane and as long as the work was still done, they didn’t care.

 

minor update : Interesting read slightly related to this post over at Above the Law, The Best and Brightest 11/28/12

Why your internship is worthless…

The first handful of days I’m probably going to make a ton of posts. Just so I can write out my experiences thus far that keep bouncing around in my brain.

Due to a rather ridiculous recent email exchange I had with a potential employer I figured I would start with this.

Your internship is worthless.

Don’t get me wrong, if you happen to be a summer associate and are offered a job this is not directed at you precisely, but it is still good to know in case you leave your job, or as happened to me and many people in my class and those before me — the job offers were rescinded.

Most reputable law schools will tell their students that an internship is absolutely necessary. If you happen to be in the 3rd / 4th tier as some of my friends were, it seems that what little career guidance you get is mostly garnered from fellow students, but the gist is the same. To be competitive in the job market, you need to have been involved with a substantive internship.

In the past, most internships were paid. Legal interns (or as many offices call them: Law Clerks) do the job of an actual attorney and are theoretically overseen by a senior attorney at the office. I say theoretically because most everyone I know was involved in a free-range internship with the concept that you would either pick it up or you wouldn’t, but no one was going to go out of their way to teach you because they had their own work to do. The work product you do is reviewed by the senior attorney and then they sign their name and number to it. In previous years, if an intern was brought on for the summer and their work was good, they were offered a job once they got out of law school. You could look forward to starting at low pay with a big bump once you passed the bar exam and were admitted.

I am not sure when this stopped. It stopped quite a while ago from what I understand. These days you are considered incredibly lucky if your internship is paid. In effect, you put in your time for free and often pay (in some way – parking, gas, etc) a decent amount to volunteer for the benefit of ‘learning the ropes’ of becoming an attorney in whatever niche field you are interning. Law firms and government law offices know that they can get free labor, and therefore don’t need to hire someone to do extra legal paperwork… instead they just ‘hire’ an intern.

 NPR – Unpaid Interns ; USAToday – The Blurry line between the unpaid internship and free labor ; Atlantic – Why free internships are immoral ; NYT – The unpaid intern, legal or not

National Law Review – Unpaid internships ; Poynter – internship vs abuse

It isn’t hard to find things written about it online. When times get bad is when internships are abused the most. Law firms laid off associates and they picked up free interns to pick up some of the slack. Government offices have freezes or RiF and suddenly you will start seeing the unpaid interns walking the halls. A lot is said about Labor standards in previous links, but most interns can’t afford to enforce these because you will essentially be blacklisted (your local legal community is smaller than you think). And potential interns can’t afford to pass up an internship because as previously stated… everyone in law school has already told you ‘to be competitive in the job market, you need to have an internship on your resume.’

So… basically most law students are told to get an internship anyway possible, paid or not. Here’s where the real catch comes though. Once you graduate and pass the bar, your internship experience amounts to nothing. Employers specifically state that only post JD experience is applicable, even if they don’t explicitly state it — your experience will be dismissed regardless of what you did. I’ve been in interviews where I start off talking about my experience in a particular legal field and the interviewer interrupts me and said, “but not significantly post JD…” Check any federal job listing on USAJobs. It stipulates strictly post-JD experience only counts.

So what was the point of working at an internship and taking on an extra workload concurrent with your studies for your 2 eligible internship years in law school? (for those not yet in massive crushing debt law school, the ABA sets guidelines stating that during your first year you are not eligible for internships, and it highly suggests law students do not hold any job during their first year.)

I would love to know what 2 years at an internship has gotten me that counts for something.

Another one…

I had considered starting this ‘gripe’ blog for quite awhile. I kept hoping against hope to actually find a real job and negate my growing desire to add my voice to the chorus online of other similarly situated attorneys. But after a year and a half of looking in earnest I’ve come to an unfortunate realization. Going to law school was one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made.

Don’t get me wrong; it was intellectually stimulating, and at times fun, but in terms of a career there really isn’t a worse choice I could have made. I’ll be explaining why thru posts on here. As the title implies, Law Schools are lying to the general populace about the potential for careers and the salary to be expected. For several years now there has been a growing groundswell for the ABA to more thoroughly regulate Law School statistics released to the public. I’d personally like the ABA to actually regulate law schools significantly more than the minimum they do now; and start revoking certification to the well known offenders dragging down legal education (we all know who they are… and more on this later).

Truly this is catharsis. And cheaper than therapy; especially since without a job I have no insurance. I will post my stories of meandering through the legal field, and pretty much anything else vaguely related. So until I can figure out what my ESQ is good for, welcome to the blog lonely traveler.