The new associates

Cite this Article
Larry Ribstein, The new associates, Truth on the Market (June 15, 2011),

The WSJ reports on contract lawyering:

When he decided to become a lawyer, Jose Aponte followed a familiar path: He took the LSAT, spent more than $100,000 on law school, took a grueling bar exam and paid for continuing education. * * *

For 10 to 12 hours a day—and sometimes during graveyard shifts—contract attorneys such as Mr. Aponte sit silently in a big room, at rows of computer monitors. Each lawyer reads thousands of documents online and must quickly “code” every one according to its relevance in litigation or an investigation. Supervisors discourage talking and breaks are limited. The computer systems count each lawyer’s speed. Some law firms use their own contract attorneys, while others hire them through third-party agencies. * * *

To make a living, Mr. Aponte, who works for a variety of agencies, must scramble for the next gig. He has worked for as little as $33 an hour and has endured up to seven months’ unemployment. The duration of a job is unpredictable. “A case can settle at any time. One night they’ll call you, and the next day the project ends,” he says.

The article says that contract lawyers typically make $40-50K/year.  They get billed out at $50/hour, compared to up to $550/hour for new associates at top law firms.  More than a third of in house counsel at companies surveyed in June used contract lawyers last year. The article also reports on Big Law’s use of contract lawyers and the rise in these positions reported by the Posse List.

But it could get worse, because even these jobs may be replaced by machines. That development could be hastened by another WSJ article on suits alleging contract lawyers should be covered by federal labor laws.  The latter article also discusses billing practices for contract lawyers and potential malpractice liability for inadequate review of the contract lawyers’ work.  If law firms can’t bill contract lawyers at associate rates, they may as well try to keep their costs down by mechanizing.  As for malpractice liability, machines don’t get tired or sloppy.

But all is not lost.  There are other jobs out there for lawyers, including designing and programming the products and machines that will replace the lawyers of the past.