Thursday, February 07, 2008

Attorneys Suitable for Everyday Use

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.


Anonymous said...

Informative blog! Appreciated... I had already posted my resume in many job sites. There need to be more information for freshers in free job posts websites which would be useful for mny

Joseph Miller said...

Great post. This is less about "No-Frills" lawyers versus "Name-Brand" lawyers than it is about Elitism versus Economic Rationality.

Any university that has been around 400 years should be elite by now! But is their tuition low enough to adjust to globalization?

Anonymous said...

I quit my associate job a few years ago and have been temping ever since.

I love it and hope the pattern continues.

I work 3-4 months out of the year and then spend the rest of the time out of the US (where the local wage is much lower -- preferably by a factor of 3 or 4 times cheaper) doing what I want to do (e.g., ski instructor, language study, intensive yoga retreats in India, or hanging out on a beach enjoying life. In effect, legal temping has allowed me to do now what the average associate is planning to do when the retire at 40 or 50.

Moreover, every time I come back the temp saleries are higher and the market becomes more specialized. This is great for me, now I can make more money in a shorter period of time. Additionally, the firms generally offer full time positions (litigation assistants) to temp attorney who perform well. So, when I decide to go back to a career, I can get a job as a litigation assistant and then after a year or so, get an associate position at a mid-sized firm. Or, if I decide to go the open a law firm with a partner, temping allows one of the partners to work and fund the firm while the other one takes care of the clients.

Also, even though the saleries are lower than what an associate would make, you have to figure the associate is paying huge amount of taxes. By temping 3-4 months out of the year, I pay a lot less in taxes.

I'm very happy as a temp attorney and hope the legal temoing trend will continue.