Contract lawyers: just a screwed generation?

4 March 2016 – This week we had two publications focus on the contract attorney market, both quoting The Posse List and also quoting a number of Posse List members.

Michael Goldhaber, a writer for The American Lawyer, wrote a piece titled “Millennial Contract Lawyers: The Screwed Generation?” as part of a special issue that focused on Millennials in the legal market. But Michael’s article captured many of the issues and problems we discuss: the feeling of modern-day serfdom, Posse List members saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt, sometimes horrendous working conditions, crummy pay rates, the social stigma, etc.

Michael’s article is excellent. To read it click here.

Another excellent article appeared in the Washington Post by Post writer Lydia DePillis titled “The lawyers who are fighting for the same rights as janitors” – its focus on one of our heros: Valeria Gheorghiu, United Contract Attorneys co-Founder. Seeing others around her in the same situation, Gheorghiu decided to get organized. With help from a union and the National Lawyers Guild, she started holding meetings and building a listserv of interested workers. They compiled a list of grievances, and launched a website for a new group: The United Contract Attorneys.

For Lydia’s piece click here.

 

Good news I hear the paradigm is shifting . no watermark

“Good news. I hear the paradigm is changing”

 

Some background

About a year ago I began writing an e-book on the contract attorney industry for distribution to the industry, starting with its birth over 18 years ago when companies like GE and Dupot began outsourcing low-level legal review to India. But then they set-up U.S. based review centers. The work was primarily legal file review of product liability cases but quickly morphed into the industry we have today.

I started The Posse List in 2002 with an initial base of 24 contract attorneys. It has since morphed to 94,000+ subscribers world-wide and includes lawyers, paralegals, litigation support personnel, forensic analysts, accountants, staffing agencies, legal vendors, law firm HR departments, in-house law departments, law school recruitment offices, international organizations, media companies, etc. We started out as a job posting service for litigation document review, what would become e-discovery document reviews.

But since then we expanded to all types of temporary and full-time jobs and projects and assignments in the legal industry, jobs that include but not are limited to: e-discovery document reviews, litigation support positions, data analysis/data forensics positions, intellectual property audit reviews, M&A due diligence reviews, language translation projects, etc.

At present, there are 180 (+/-) law firms, corporations, staffing agencies, vendors, government agencies and NGOs posting jobs with us. We average 100 posts a week across 482 listservs.

No, The Posse List does not post every legal job but invariably a Posse List member is on every job out there. Every week we receive about 80 reports … unsolicited … from members detailing issues on projects, problems at agencies and law firms, etc. The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

In addition I have a hand-picked network of about 50 contract attorneys across the country who report on the comings and goings of a multitude of projects, supplemented by The Posse List staff — two of whom are full-time and four of whom are part-time and take e-discovery review projects throughout the year in various parts of the country, and in Europe.

So there is a hefty amount of information coursing through our emails.

What I see

One thing I have learned, as have many in the e-discovery market: the collective intelligence and cognitive abilities of the contract attorney group can be unmatched.

Yes, contract attorneys are often maligned, sometimes with good cause. But the streets of American cities are haunted by their ghosts, destroyed by the thugs of commerce and technology. Amid the bacchanal of “legal disruption”, let us pause to honor those most disrupted. They hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little, sometimes nothing. And I use the word nothing” when you tote up the net effect of daily cost-of-living expenses, loan repayments, etc.

Advancing technology has its blame. And the chimera called the legal “profession”. But the more immediate culprit is the institutionalization of an economic model so focused on quick, self-serving rewards, and so inured to long-term social costs. In America it’s all about the money, only about the money.

This is a land far removed from the rarified air of LegalTech, or a Sedona conference, or the perfect e-discovery world described in articles in the Richmond Journal of Law & Technology.

In the last three years, thousands of Posse List members have emailed us about facing default on their private loans, late fees piling up. The average debt load held by a student — law or otherwise — is in the stratosphere. The American Lawyer and Washington Post articles noted above give you the statistics.

No other Western country – and this the richest, most powerful in the world – saddles its youth, when they are least able to the pay it, with the monstrous debt load that exists today.

Ah, America: it’s all about the money, only about the money. [You, go, Donald!!]

We have chronicled the deaths of friends like Jamal Rashad and Richard Brown, who worked long hours, had inadequate or no health insurance, added to the list of those who died partially due to their contract attorney “profession”.

Because the contract attorney market pulls you into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exist as an individual. And nobody has enough clout to stand up for themselves.

To most, the system seems rigged, anyway. Members tell us “we are all modern-day serfs. Saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt – debt that has been stripped of all consumer protections and is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy – we are all part of The Screwed Generation”.

Last year at LegalTech a litigation partner at large law firm remarked to me “look, this is a business, not a profession. We have profit margins to meet. We are no different than Krispy Creme donuts or Starbucks or Walmart. The law is subject to a market economy. Don’t like it? Find another job”.

Well, on that we are agreed. I have never seen the law as a “profession”. I spent three years on Wall Street as a currency trader and then an M&A analyst before law school and see the law as merely another tool, another weapon in the tool box. No more, no less.

The Posse List? Well, we can never win with some members. Hundreds of Posse List members scream at us about low hourly rate postings:

“How can you post that?! That rate?! What are you doing?!”

And then on the opposite side, the hundreds of members thanking us for posting jobs — any jobs — because they can pay their student loan, their rent, their mortgage, their alimony, their kids schooling, finally get health insurance, etc., etc.

The Posse List’s responsibility? To shove as many positions/opportunities out there as we can so members can work. Increasingly we have expanded so many of the jobs we post are not the “usual suspects” but have been positions sometimes only tangentially related to the law but where a law background can be useful.

Philosophy time

My philosophy in all of this is pretty simple, and it aligns with Chris Hedges and Cornel West and many others whom you have all read and who have written more eloquently than I, and it goes like this:

In the U.S. we live in an oligarchic state. I do not think it even worth debating. According to Aristotle, there are only two routes for the average citizen. The impoverished masses either revolt to rectify the imbalance of wealth and power, or the oligarchs establish a brutal tyranny to keep the masses forcibly enslaved.

In America, we have been left with the second of Aristotle’s options. The slow advances we made in the early 20th century through unions, government regulation, the New Deal, the courts, an alternative press and mass movements have been reversed. The oligarchs are turning us — as they did to workers in the 19th century steel and textile factories — into disposable human beings. Coloring it, like Uber, with euphemisms like “the sharing economy”. How lovely. More on that it a bit.

This imbalance would certainly not have disturbed our Founding Fathers. Largely wealthy slaveholders, they feared direct democracy. They rigged our political process to thwart popular rule and protect the property rights of the native aristocracy. The masses were to be kept at bay. The Electoral College, the original power of the states to appoint senators, the disenfranchisement of women, Native Americans, African-Americans and men without property locked most people out of the democratic process at the beginning of the republic.

So what happened? Our history shows we tried to go on Aristotle’s first route which I noted above. We had to fight for our voice. Hundreds of workers were killed and thousands were wounded in our labor wars. The violence dwarfed the labor battles in any other industrialized nation. The democratic openings we achieved were fought for and paid for with the blood of abolitionists, black Americans, suffragists, workers and those in the anti-war and civil rights movements. Our radical movements, repressed and ruthlessly dismantled in the name of anti-communism, were the real engines of equality and social justice.

And then? The squalor and suffering inflicted on workers by the oligarchic class in the 19th century is simply mirrored in the present day, now that we have been stripped of protection. Dissent is once again a criminal act. Just think what the “Occupy” movement was about a few years ago.

Forget artificial intelligence and our robot overlords. The corporate oligarchs have now seized all institutional systems of power in the United States. Electoral politics, internal security, the judiciary, our universities, the arts and finance, along with nearly all forms of communication, are in corporate hands. Our “democracy” … with those faux debates between two corporate parties … is meaningless political theater.

And “Uberization”? The connection between working for a living and being able to earn a decent living from work has disintegrated. Perhaps nowhere is this disparity more evident than in the growing “on-demand” economy. Companies like Uber, Lyft, Crowdflower, Homejoy, and others in transportation, delivery, hospitality, home improvement, domestic service, technology and elsewhere have adopted business models that pass the costs of doing business onto workers themselves and move the wealth their service provides upwards.

As Umair Haque has pointed out in a brilliant essay entitled The Servitude Bubble, the devaluation of labor and general shift toward a market of ad hoc pieceworkers, livery drivers, servants, and craftspeople all working too cheaply for a wealthy minority is not limited to any particular business sector. As many of my media colleagues have been saying for some time, what the tech industry and free-culture consumers did to music is now manifest in all areas of the market.

Contract attorneys have known this for a long time. Newly minted law grads sit down to their computers every day, wondering whether they will get enough work on this project to make it through the month. Doing mind-numbing tasks like coding documents. And that predictive coding monster sits hulking in the back of the room.

Yeah, get pissed off at the 1% and angry as hell at Wall Street. But what can you do. The more that labor is devalued across multiple sectors and the more desperate our circumstances become, the less bargaining power we have. And it doesn’t even have to be malicious.

As these economic forces continue to drive the value of work down and the global market is flooded with millions of talented, educated people, it becomes untenable for even the most generous, well-intentioned employer to offer more than a meager going rate for your services. That is the conundrum for the staffing agencies. Don’t blame them. Blame the corporations and their servants.

Yes, yes. I have been a bit short and simplistic on a few points. A more robust analysis is required.

But another time. Back to posting jobs …

Comments? Suggestions? Criticisms? Your own rant? Email us at:

manager@theposselist.com

About the Author Gregory P. Bufithis, Esq.

Gregory P. Bufithis is the Founder & Chairman of The Posse List. He has over 25 years of experience in intellectual property law and digital media in the U.S. and Europe.

follow me on: