When he mentions his job to former professors, this lawyer told me, they often congratulate him on "getting good experience." These professors are clueless about how document review works, how temp agencies operate, and how difficult it is for lawyers to move from document review to other positions. For those who don't understand, here are the cold facts of life for a legal polar bear:
- Document reviewers develop expertise using computer programs to review documents. That expertise translates into nothing except using the same programs to review still more documents.
- Law firms hire outsourcing companies to staff their document review projects. A standard arrangement is for the law firm to bill clients $100/hour for this work and to pocket half; the firm pays the outsourcing company $50/hour; and the company pays the document review attorney no more than $25/hour.
- This financial arrangement is somewhat like the way in which firms leverage the work of associates--except for the very important fact that the document review lawyer has no way of moving up in the hierarchy. Under the conventional firm structure, the partners collect one-third of the associate's billings as compensation for training the associate and giving her access to client business. In document review, the firm collects one-half of the junior lawyer's billings, but with no interest in giving the reviewer advanced training, access to clients, or promotion opportunities.
- Even when reviewers impress the law firms they are servicing, they have little chance to move into full-time staff positions. The reviewer's contract with the outsourcing company contains a clause prohibiting the reviewer from working for any of the company's law firm clients for a full year after the temp job ends--unless the law firm pays the outsourcing company a stiff fee. Even a very talented document reviewer will not impress a law firm enough to justify that premium price, especially when the firm can continue profiting so handsomely from temporary workers.
- The ice floes are melting faster because the computer software is getting slicker. Fewer attorneys are needed to supervise the latest programs. As fewer bears fit on each ice floe, more are left swimming in the sea.
- Temp work does not, as some professors romantically assume, offer workers a "more relaxed lifestyle." The polar bears work 8-10 hours a day on relaxed projects; 10-12 hours a day on more stressful ones. Law firm associates may struggle to get time off for a friend's wedding, family illness, or other commitment, but it's even harder for the polar bears. The temp agency has no investment in its bears' professional development or well-being. If this bear won't produce on schedule, there are plenty of other bears swimming in that cold sea.
If we're serious about the idea of a profession, rather than a business cartel, then of course they should. But the same criticism applies to law schools. We, too, are part of the legal profession. We shouldn't be admitting the most students we can entice, for the highest tuition we can gouge, only to release our graduates into a workplace that we know offers many of them just polar bear jobs--or no jobs at all. The economy will support only so many legal jobs with the possibility for advancement.
The real polar bears are not faring well. Neither are the legal polar bears, even the ones from top-50 habitats.