The simple answer is, “of course” and as commodities, their value is determined by the market.
It should come as no surprise that legal practice has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. However, a recent article (link below) in Washington Lawyer struck a shocked, revelational tone when describing both the temporary attorney market as well as the work usually performed by contract attorneys.
The context of the article ignores how the legal services industry has evolved in a few ways;
- The practice of law increasingly bears little resemblance to our legal education and we should not assume that our only value is in “fighting the good fight” like Oliver Wendell Holmes or Clarence Darrow
- The practice of law is driven by numbers (bill rates, BSR’s, realization rates, etc.) and a highly competitive market mixed with a challenging economy have been catalysts for increased focus on the business of law
- The development of technology and resultant explosion of eDiscovery has forced law firms (hopefully) to rethink billing and value and strategically commoditize their services and portions of their workflow
Typically, contract attorneys are sourced to review documents as part of the discovery process. Although the work is seldom glamorous, it is an essential component to responding to subpoenas, developing case strategy, preparing for depositions and ultimately, understanding your client. No one is well-served by diminishing the importance of this function. However, as eDiscovery and technology evolves and firms and clients develop more cost-efficient strategies for review, contract attorney rates have slowly declined since 2008. The “throw bodies at it” approach is rapidly disappearing. In the same way that first-year salaries have stagnated or declined during the same period and bill rates are more frequently questioned by clients, temporary staffing has taken a hit as firms try and manage cost, competition and process while the market assesses value.
For attorneys joining or working in the temporary market, I would advise a better understanding of the broader eDiscovery sector. Flexing with the market, firms are continually evaluating their discovery resources and permanent positions (and comp) are evolving even more quickly than temporary roles. Although I appreciate the frustration caused by a “contracting” attorney market, it is critical to acknowledge that business decisions are driving the discovery environment. Within the world of document review, if anything, conditions have standardized and firms better understand how to manage the work. Comparisons made to partner compensation, stories waxing poetic about town cars and catered meals and complaints about access to personal technology are easy red herrings that reflect a complete lack of understanding regarding the modern business of law and its challenges.
The content of the article would have been pseudo-provocative in 2004. Ten years later, it is critical for practitioners, clients and vendors to understand that the legal market is transitioning into a services model (following accountancy, medicine, etc.) where value is proven and not assumed. As an industry, we need to reconsider how to assess value and resources and, to stay competitive, we are forced to modernize and adjust to market forces to stay relevant.