Friday, November 27, 2009

Legal Minimum Wage: Betting the Company on Less than $30 Per Hour

Shared Thanksgiving last night with some friends and family, one of whom is also an experienced attorney with a small practice.  He mentioned that in addition to his own matters - he was also working on a Second Circuit brief - he'd filled some time over the past couple of months working on an e-discovery project as a contract attorney.  For this experience, he was paid roughly 15% of what my last law firm would have charged to assign a paralegal to the same task.

Assigned Counsel, out of Philadelphia, tells recruits that its contract work pays between $30 and $100/hour, depending on complexity, and my unscientific survey of other contract attorney shops suggests that this range is typical.  How much top end complex work is available is the question.  The sweet spot for more sophisticated work may fall somewhere in the middle:  A recruiter called me a couple of months ago about a gig that might pay $60/hour to the right attorney (which I took to mean experienced) willing to make a full-time, multi-month commitment.  

But downward pressure on this market persists.  I've heard of recent rates down to $24/hour.  What's next - $19.95? 

Commercial clients may be happy that they can get experienced attorneys for $30 (or less) an hour, and big firms may be happy as well, since they can (directly or indirectly) hire back some of their fired attorneys for outsourced works at a fraction of the former toll. 

My attorney friend is not the cynical type and seemed happy for the experience.  But some of the lowly paid - particularly those taking orders from firms that wouldn't hire them (or did hire them, and then laid them off) - are more than disgruntled, if some blogs are an indicator. 

And so I wonder at the toll that this race to the bottom of the wage pool is taking on the legal work product itself.  Some of this contract work is taken on in connection with large commercial litigation cases, the kind that keeps general counsels up at night and warrants at least a footnote in public company securities filings.  Even in the most competitive legal market in decades, and even if the project is "just" e-discovery, at what price point ($19.95?) would you question whether you would bet the company on the results?

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