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Contract Work--Like Flipping Burgers at McDonald's

Vivia Chen

November 22, 2010

IStock_000001853733XSmall There might be signs of a more robust (or at least a more stabilized) legal market, but let's not forget the thousands of jobless law grads and laid-off lawyers still out on the streets. A couple of months ago on this blog, I asked an obvious question: Now that times are better, why won't firms rehire some of those who got laid off during the economic downturn?

I heard from a few partners and headhunters who told me--not for attribution, of course--that those laid-off weren't the top drawer to begin with. The really good lawyers, they contend, never got the ax.

I found that explanation unsatisfying, disingenuous, and heartless on many levels--but especially so when referring to junior lawyers or those in practice areas that basically got decimated.

I was reminded of the plight of those unlucky lawyers recently by Corporette founder Kat Griffin, who tells me that laid-off lawyers are still cornering her for advice about their job hunts, and that she personally knows three lawyers who've been unemployed for a year or more. Griffin offers some advice on how to make it through the protracted job search ("When the Job Hunt Drags On...").

It's bad enough to be laid off, but as one of Griffin's readers pointed out, these lawyers face another potential stigma: being branded as untouchable for taking on certain contract positions, such as document reviewer. So is it better to just leave off low-brow legal work on your resume, if your goal is to return to a big firm?

Several of Corporette's readers advised against putting document review work on resumes, calling it a "scarlet letter." Writes one reader: "If you tended bar to make ends meet while job hunting, you wouldn’t put that on your resume, would you? Approach temping the same way."

I asked legal recruiter Katherine Frink-Hamlett about the dilemma, and this is her take: "To the extent that omissions are tantamount to misrepresentations, I would counsel against it. Further, if omitting the projects would cause a huge and glaring gap in the resume, that’s equally problematic." But she also says that, "if the the project is relatively short (less than a month or so), then it’s a coin toss."

It seems ironic that people should be penalized for working--especially when they're probably facing a mountain of law school debt. But as Griffin points out, the matter might already be moot for those shut out of big firms. "If and when the floodgates open, and Big Law starts hiring again, I suspect they'll start--and stop--with the old system of recruiting 2Ls--and anyone out of the system will be shut out entirely."

Readers, is it a career killer to list a document research job on your c.v.? Or has time run out for laid-off lawyers to return to Big Law anyway?  

Related post: "Hire, Fire, Hire Again!" and "First Take a Shower."

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Photo:  Skip Odonnell/iStock


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I agree with you Vivia Chen but it totally depends on particular firm that what are the expectations from the employee or the newly hired person, after this also if there are conflicts then it is a different matter.

I would agree with this article as a general rule, but there are more exceptions being made these days. Yes, large law firms are unlikely to view any of this work as sufficiently engaging in the practice of law to the extent that the applicants will be given credit for it towards their legal experience and ultimately leading to the applicant’s hire as an associate. But when it’s an employer’s market, those high-end firms can afford to and will be picky.

However, those same firms will consider and have hired (I’ve personally known several) contract attorneys directly as Staff Attorneys; essentially having a salaried position to do doc review, and supervise some temps and contract attorneys. Some firms even have express policies about maintaining a certain core group of such positions. Whether such positions ever allow for further upward mobility is another question, but if we’re talking employment vs. none at all, there are certainly worse options, and these people were hired specifically because of their experience doing doc review.

While I would agree that there remains a negative stigma about temping/contract attorney work, I don’t think that the stigma is quite as much of an impediment to a career as it used to be. Given how the FRCP has expanded clients’ responsibilities for document retention, as well as all of the various electronic sites where such documentation may be retained these days (think IM transcripts, social media, cloud computing), those attorneys with blue-water experience in handling such information may (upon at least a partial resurrection of the economy) be poised to take advantage of a specific niche in law. It may not provide the traditional approach to furthering one’s career, but there’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. My advice to unemployed attorneys: it may be hard to, but stay patient, persistent, and open-minded about your future.

Although generally it probably is the case that the weakest lawyers have been laid off in this econominy, the problem is that it's not always the case. There are always political and other situations, etc. at play that could account for good lawyers leaving and bad lawyers staying. The issue for the laid off is whether the firm or company hiring will give them the benefit of the doubt.

Also, I'm surprised that, although there's a lot of career and "hang in there" advice out there, there's very little discussion about whether it makes sense for some of these people to continue to keep on hoping and planning to make it as a lawyer. All the reports I see are saying that many of these jobs just won't come back. Unless they're wrong, a lot of displaced lawyers will not be practicing attorneys again. It's hard news but I fear it may be true.

Yikes. This post is resume advice malpractice. Leaving off legal jobs is 1) misrepresentation, and 2) laying a conflicts trap for employers.

You need to issue a retraction, pronto.


We are talking about resumes here. You do not need to include every job that you've ever had. That is absurd.

Conflicts are another matter. If and when the time comes that you are asked to check conflicts, you should disclose all work.

If an applicant omits any legal position from his or her resume, the omission impairs the hiring firm's ability to do thorough conflicts checks. Ultimately, this could lead to potential liability for the hiring firm. Exposure to client confidences on even a short contract assignment implicates this concern.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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