About five years ago, I finished my first document review project here in DC. Document review, if you’re not familiar, is project-based work that attorneys do when they can’t find a better job. It is repetitive, low-level work that consists largely of classifying documents and doing data entry, but because the bar association says that only lawyers are allowed to perform document review (and because it typically pays well enough to cover our large student loan expenses), it’s what a significant number of young lawyers fall into. Although the individual projects are essentially temp jobs (typically lasting six weeks to four months), there has usually been enough work to go around here in DC to support what more or less amounts to full time employment doing document review.
That is, until recently. 2009 saw a slowdown in the document review market (or, more accurately, a continuation of the slowdown that started in the fall of 2008) and marked the first time I was involuntarily unemployed for as much as a month at a time. When a project that I had been on for a month ended in early December, I figured that due to the holiday season, I probably wouldn’t work again until 2010. But even with the slowdown, I never thought I would still be waiting for my first substantial project of the year in the middle of March.
My agency has called me about some projects… heck, I even worked on one. But there’s an unmistakable trend toward smaller and shorter jobs that’s taken hold. The one project that I have worked on this year employed four people for four days… easily the smallest and shortest project I have ever worked. For the last three months (and about six of the last twelve), I’ve basically been unemployed.
I’ve been in touch with a few other agencies, but they haven’t had projects for me either. More hopefully, I’ve also been seeking permanent employment doing litigation support or project management… essentially running the computer systems that are at the heart of these document review projects. Here, however, I run into two problems:
First is that I haven’t actually done this work before. Oh sure, I have all the skills that a lit support person would be expected to have: experience with the process and mad computer skillz, with some background in databases. But because I haven’t done this all at the same time, I don’t meet that magical requirement of x years in the position. Feh.
So maybe I start at a low level and work my way up the ladder, right? Wrong! You see, problem two is that many law firms really, really, really do not want to hire lawyers to do non-lawyer jobs. Presumably, they figure that the employee will just bolt once a better job (read: a lawyer job!) comes along. In so many words, I’m overqualified for the entry-level job and under-qualified for the more experienced position. Yeesh…
I’m really not certain what else I’m especially qualified to do, to tell you the truth. I don’t doubt that I’m capable of doing just about anything, but document review really gives you more or less no marketable skills beyond sitting in a chair for extended periods of time and tolerating monotonous, repetitive tasks, so it’s not like my five years of document review experience prepare me for much beyond… well… more document review jobs. And ultimately that’s a long road to nowhere. Furthermore, this money quote from a highly depressing Atlantic article on long term unemployment makes me wonder to what extent it applies to someone like me…
“as a spell of unemployment lengthens, skills erode and behavior tends to change, leaving some people unqualified even for work they once did well.”
All of this is to say that my professional career feels like it’s at a crossroads. I can maybe keep doing what I’m doing, but after five years, that’s starting to become unsustainable and if I’m still doing it five years hence, I’ll basically still be in this same position. On the other hand, I can try to find something else, but that might require some very good fortune, a significant change in the legal corporate culture or both. Despite the difficulties, I think that there is a clear right answer here, but I’m rapidly approaching the point where it needs to happen very, very soon.