Over at JDWired, blogger Joe Miller has a post about a contract attorney survey he recently conducted via his blog. For the uninitiated, a contract attorney is not a lawyer who practices contract law. Rather, it's someone who is hired on a temporary basis to help with a particular project. Synonyms include "document review attorney" and "temp(orary) attorney." Contract attorney work is not all that glamorous, it pays less, and there is (by definition) not a lot of job security involved. But it's work, and in a tight job market that's something. I previously blogged about contract attorney work here.
The findings of Miller's survey are interesting. Here's the gist of his post and his findings.
(1) 44% of contract attorneys (responding to the survey) were minorities. By contrast, only 16.72% of the associates and 5.01% of the partners at the firms these contract attorneys were working at were minorities. That's disturbing.
(2) Almost all said that their staffing (temp) agencies provide no access to professional development programs. Not so good for the attorneys, and potentially bad for the agencies as well.
(3) About half said they had worked as contract attorneys for more than one year after graduating from law school, and that the work was their "primary source of income."
(4) Staffing agencies typically do not provide health care. And since contract attorneys are temps, they generally won't get healthcare through the firms they work for either.
Miller concludes that "[c]ontract attorneys are an untapped resource both for improving diversity and reducing skyrocketing client costs." He then notes that "[t]he ABA’s 1992 MacCrate Report urges the legal profession to invest in all lawyers. So far, we are not seeing that."
In a sense, what Miller's survey points out--to me anyway--is that the phenomenon of the contract attorney is part of a larger restructuring of the U.S. legal job market. That is:
(1) Partnership is becoming ever harder to get, with billable targets being raised. At the same time, it is perhaps getting less lucrative. So fewer people seem to be going that route--either by choice, or because they are denied full partnership.
(2) Non-equity partnership positions (and Of Counsel positions, which are much the same thing) are becoming more attractive long-term positions. They are attractive both for people who want to avoid the equity partner rat race as well as (by default) those do not win it. But many of these positions are also getting less lucrative, as firms restructure their non-equity partner/Of Counsel contracts.
(3) Associates at big law firms make scads of money, but the positions can be hard to get in this tight job market. There's ever-increasing pressure to bill more hours, and there are reduced chances at partnership (see above), so people tend to rotate out of associate jobs after a few years.
(4) All of the above mean that contract attorneys may have a larger role to play in contemporary law firms. Contract attorneys are of course cheaper than any of the above. Firms can lower their bottom line by hiring contract attorneys to do the "lower end" legal work that needs to be done. (For insight into such work, see this post on My Attorney Blog.) And as Miller points out, not only can firms lower their own wage costs (read: increase their profits), but they also can bill these contract attorney out at lower rates--which will help keep these firms price-competitive vis à vis the competition. With an economy teetering on recession and legal work being not only outsourced but even offshored, this is no small consideration.