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Doc Review Hell: A Culture of Fear But Not Totally Awful

Aug 3, 2020
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We dive into a roundtable discussion with three law school graduates about short-term contract work, a job that resides at the bottom of the legal profession hierarchy. Known to some as “the circuit,” it's filled with new graduates trying to break into the profession, older graduates trying to on-ramp back in, and others who need the money to get by as they start their own practice, balance a family, or try to start fresh after a grueling job. 

Transcript

Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs, to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this special episode, Kyle McEntee facilitates a round table with three graduates doing document review. They cover navigating difficult work environments, stigma and seeing the bright side.

Kyle McEntee:

At the bottom of the legal profession hierarchy, lays the opaque world of short-term contract work, also known as document review. Known as some as the circuit, it's filled with due graduates trying to break into the profession, older graduates trying to on-ramp back in and others who need the money to get by as they start their own practice, balance a family or try to start fresh after a grueling job. I'm Kyle McEntee. In this special episode, we dive into this world through a round table discussion with three law school graduates. You might recognize Kimber Russell, one of the hosts of this podcast. She's joined by two of her colleagues in Chicago, Robert and Naomi. Combined, these three incredibly smart and driven people have spent years doing contract work.

You'll hear them talk about hourly and inconsistent pay, how they bounce from project to project and how they navigate difficult work environments. While the discussion took place two years ago, the lessons still resonate today. With the pandemic, doc review has largely gone remote and firms are finding that people can do huge projects just fine. But realistic or not, agencies seem to think that their workforce will be back in the office this fall. We'll see. But the discussion before you today, focuses on work conditions, stigma, types of work, and some of the benefits despite a lot of, well, nonsense. For example, Kimber tells a story about what, I guess you can call, work uniforms.

Kimber Russell:

An entire project was literally having to dress up basically in hazmat suits every day. They had these aprons and gloves and they were lifting 50 pound boxes of documents that were covered with dust.

Kyle McEntee:

She also tells a salacious story that helped keep her grind interesting.

Kimber Russell:

Don't send personal things on your work email. Don't do it. Do not do it.

Kyle McEntee:

Throughout the discussion, rockets back and forth between pessimism and optimism. Robert talks about what he describes as a culture of fear.

Robert Alexander:

People are beaten down and they have internalized this idea that they aren't valuable.

Kyle McEntee:

And then Naomi tells us about the pep talk she gave her friend and coworker.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

Closed mouths don't get fed. If you don't ask, you won't receive. And I think, women and women of color in particular have difficulty broaching that subject.

Kyle McEntee:

Ultimately, the discussion concludes with impassion [inaudible 00:04:46] from Robert, related to loving and setting up for yourself. I hope you enjoy.

Kimber Russell:

My name is Kimber Russell. I am a 2008 graduate. I started doc review in 2016 after I off ramped from sales. I was a little... Sales is a very competitive field. I needed a breather. I started doing document review.

Robert Alexander:

I'm Robert Alexander, a 2013 law grad. I also took a detour into the kitchen to chase my dream of being a chef. After I got sick of those crazy shifts and two jobs, got back into the legal field through contracting. And that was in 2015.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

Hi, my name is Naomi Tesfamichael. I'm a 2017 law graduate. So, pretty recent. My first job right after the bar in last year was a doc review job for a few months. And then right after that, I transitioned into a contract position where they hire people who have JD degrees. It's not really doc review, doc review like in some ways, reviewing leases but not your traditional doc review position.

Kyle McEntee:

So, what is it that drew you all to this as your on-ramp back into the profession? Specifically Kimber and Robert?

Kimber Russell:

It was the first opportunity that I had to quasi practice law. It's very difficult. The background that I had was five years in... Seven years actually in hardcore sales. And that doesn't seem to have relevance in the legal field even though you have to sell yourself as an attorney. But based on my qualifications, it was very difficult to get any actual legal practice in. So, I thought this was one way that I could at least dip my toes back in the field, get back on the track to begin practicing law again.

Robert Alexander:

My reasoning is similar. I was tired of the kitchen and I needed to do something that would pay more and contracting was easy to get into and I kind of like it because of the flexibility and because I plan on starting a practice. This will give me the flexibility and also money to work that out while I'm working for it.

Kyle McEntee:

So, do you feel like this has given you that experience that will help you figure out what kind of solo practice you want to create?

Robert Alexander:

It has definitely told me things that I don't want to practice, because I want to do criminal and civil rights. I've only done one doc review that had anything to do with that. But, it's also taught me things about contracts and leases, things that I didn't know before.

Kimber Russell:

It is a good opportunity to get exposure to various different types of legal practice. A lot of what we do, like Robert said, it's not going to be criminal. It's almost all going to be civil practice. And much of what we do is multi-district litigation. A lot of the cases tend to be antitrust. This is a great thing about doc review is that, it does give you an opportunity to see lots of different areas that you might not otherwise have been exposed to even in a limited sense.

Kyle McEntee:

Now what do you mean by in a limited sense?

Kimber Russell:

So, being a contract attorney is interesting because, there's a level of engagement you can or choose to engage in. The material that we review can vary widely. From very dense, very complicated legal documents, specifically legal documents to very dense scientific manuals to emails, to days and days of empty outlook invites. So, there's a variety of material and it's very easy to become disengaged with what you're looking at if you're not feeling any kind of connection with the area of practice.

Kyle McEntee:

So our listeners can understand. So when we say the term doc review or contract attorney, we're meaning the same thing, right? In this context at least?

Kimber Russell:

Correct.

Kyle McEntee:

And document review is a very literal phrase, where you are literally reviewing documents whether for litigation or any other document that a client might need reviewed for some purpose.

Kimber Russell:

Correct. Sometimes clients actually are about to get sued or they're pretty sure they're about to get sued, so they do internal audits to find out just how bad it's going to be. I've worked on several cases where there've been multinational corporations that are in pharmaceuticals say, and they know they're about to get in trouble. So they do an internal audit to see if they have been improperly using their drugs off license or if they're using them internationally in inappropriate ways or if say a multi-level marketing company has actually been a Ponzi scheme and they need to figure out whether or not how much trouble they're going to be in.

Robert Alexander:

Yeah. I've even had a project where we were looking through government documents and we had to redact information. I had a project where we listened to 911 calls. It was like an audit to make sure that they were actually answering people's questions, sending people to the places that they needed to go. I've also done projects where I've just clicked through blank pages, because they're like 500 page documents and you have tens of thousands of those and it'll be every page is blank, but you have to look at every page.

Kyle McEntee:

Now, mostly it seems so far in the early stages of your career have worked in due diligence on leases and such. What are you exactly looking for?

Naomi Tesfamichael:

Well, with the recent job analyzing leases to make sure the client is within their rights to use the property as stated in lease if we're. Right now in telecom, we're focused on easements and whether we have the right to use another person's land to lay our utilities. And if for some reason a landlord comes back and says that they should charge a certain amount for our work, we would go back and then review the lease to see if they're entitled to do that according to the lease.

Kyle McEntee:

So I feel like if I didn't know better, all of this work sounds really interesting.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

So... Okay. So, in some ways I think Kimber was touching on this. In some ways, it gives you exposure to different areas of law and so it can be interesting if you remain engaged. I've also had a position where it's mindless work and they were doing data migration. So, does this document match this document on the left? Does that match with the document on the right? So you really don't have to read for content, so it's... You are just clicking through.

Robert Alexander:

I do think that it can be interesting. I find that it's mostly interesting when it's a short-term project.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

Right.

Robert Alexander:

Because once you've... Like short-term meaning a month. Maybe two months. Once you get past two months, a lot of the documents look the same. You're probably sick of being in the same room. You're probably sick of these people that you're sitting next to. You're sick of their inane conversations. So the work itself might still be interesting, but you're ready to go, so you might check out. But every time I start a project, I'm super interested. Because they're never the same. And so, I've learned a lot. I've negotiated international financial contracts, I've reviewed those police records and I've also looked at financial documents from giant corporations, where I didn't need to read for content, but it's there and I'm looking at it for eight hours. So, I started reading some of it and it was fascinating because some of it was from right before the great recession. I was in college during that time. It was fascinating to see what was happening in the business world, because I felt kind of insulated. I was a K through JD, so I never went into the real world until after law school.

And so just to see how the markets were reacting, how businesses reacted, if I had just been like, "Oh, the page matches", instead of reading it, I don't think I would've gotten that kind of context. And so that made it interesting.

Kyle McEntee:

So, is that what's expected of you to read content usually? Or like in this case you're saying, your task was to read for the pages matching. Which sounds not interesting and not a good use of your intelligence.

Robert Alexander:

Agree.

Kyle McEntee:

But yet you were doing something other than that and other than what was asked of you. So how does that work in terms of the expectations that the employer has?

Robert Alexander:

It depends on the employer. Some employers just want you to get it done as fast as possible, and those are the ones that tend to pay less. But the ones that pay more, they expect you to go a little bit further. One of my favorite document review jobs, I was reviewing contracts for a merger. We were looking for novations. And of course you have to read those, you can't just click through. But, also because I speak some Spanish, I was able to differentiate between Spanish contracts, Portuguese contracts. I learned the difference between the Korean contracts and the Japanese contracts. If you were just clicking through, you wouldn't know that. But because I was able to make those distinctions when the project was ending, my contract got extended and I became part of the quality control team. And so after that, that company kept calling me back.

Kimber Russell:

There's sort of a happy medium that most people are... That stay on the circuit are able to grok pretty quickly. There's animus towards reviewers who work too fast. And there's a couple reasons for this. One reason can be, a lot of people who mindlessly click through are going too fast and missing stuff. But also if you move too fast, this can be problematic. Because something that a veteran will immediately ask is, what's the rate of review? And that means, how many documents or pages are you expected to look at and spot the issues, whether it's relevant or privileged or whatever per hour. Now, most people find that the comfortable place to be is in the middle of the pack. Where you're hitting it, you maybe you're above it a little bit, but you're not exceeding it too much and you're not so far below that you're really falling behind. Because the folks that tend to be really low behind are not necessarily going to be the first people called back.

And, it might be difficult for you in the workroom when you're in a very small room with maybe 25s, 35, 40 people crammed to know a very small, typically windowless room, if you're the person who's setting the pace. There is a level of engagement you can find within even those parameters. But sometimes there's nothing there. There was a long, long-term case that I was on that had been going on for nine months by the time I got there, where it was the same PowerPoint we were looking at five million times. Because the CEO didn't create his own materials. He had one PowerPoint that kept getting sent to him again and again and again and again and it was a 400 page PowerPoint. We knew it by heart. But what was revealed, number one, here's a pro tip, anybody out there. Don't send personal things on your work email.

Don't do it. Do not do it. Because, we discovered there was an affair going on at this firm and it happened slowly over a number of years. You could see it happening. It became with some flirtations, there were text messages, then there was the infamous pool party. Stuff went down at the pool party. Then there were all the people who went to the pool party, there were endless chains about what happened, who was hooking up. There were emails between the people. Then, the wife of one of the people got involved. This made it very exciting. So, I was thrilled because I was the one who was able to pay enough attention to spot this stuff. Like, "Oh, so-and-so went to the pool party and then saw so-and-so and so-and-so hooking up at the pool party and stuff's about to go down because there's an international meeting in Tempe, Arizona, it's about to go down."

So, that was very exciting, but that doesn't happen very often. You have to make the best of it I think. In order to really survive, you have to find what interests you. Unlike Robert, I get really excited about learning the material, so that I can really dig in. So, I've learned so much about the chicken industry, the supplements industry, multi-level marketing, bribery in the Middle East, bribery in Indonesia, so many different ways and forms of bribery you can't even imagine. It's very interesting, but you have to balance that with the needs of the client. Which is like, "Okay. We get that you're very interested in reading these 1000 page documents about the difference between Korean and Japanese financial documents." But at the end of the day, there comes a point where you really just have to get it done.

Robert Alexander:

Absolutely. And, that's where asking the rate comes in. But I was only able to suss out those differences, because I was always ahead of the pack. And so, once you're ahead of the pack, you can take a little moment to read it or see what it's about. But also because it was about seeing what the novations were, we were expected to read those documents. If there's a project where we're just supposed to click through, that's a project where I'll put on my headphones and I'll listen to an audio book. And that way, listening to the audio book keeps me awake, because I don't drink coffee.

Kimber Russell:

You have to come up with a lot of different coping skills in jobs like this. Because the tedium can really set in quickly. It's very easy. Something that you see a lot of, is people just on their phones scrolling through. There have been projects where literally we have 1000 page batches. Typical batch size is going to be a 100, 200, maybe 500 documents. We had 1500 page documents because they were all empty, but we still had to review them. So, people would race through for 20 minutes and then for the next 40 minutes of the hour they would be on their phones. So, that is something that people do to cope. Another thing like Robert, I listen to podcasts constantly. Some people take a lot of breaks or they're just on a mental break. I don't know what you do, Naomi, to cope.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

Pretty much. Well, I tended to set the pace where I was at, because I become bored very quickly and I'd rather just be productive in that way. So what the rate that they need is and set a goal for myself, this is what I want to be at every hour. Sometimes if I'm working too fast and I don't realize that I'm going through these documents pretty fast. And then I'll sit back and reduce my rate, look through my phone. At the place that I was at, they allowed us to have our phones, but I know at other places we're not allowed to have your phones, not allowed to have headphones, just so you're expected to just be productive every minute. So, I would cope in that way. I would get up, take frequent breaks. You have to have a coping mechanism.

Kyle McEntee:

That brings me to questions about working conditions. Because, anyone who goes through law school or is engaged in the legal profession, hears horror stories about what it's like to do document review. Can you talk a little bit about the trade offs?

Naomi Tesfamichael:

The reason I accepted a doc review job right after law school was purely financial. And I didn't know about it until after I took the bar and talked to my classmates. That was a pro. So even though I'm doing mindless tedious work at times, I knew I was getting paid for that as opposed to clerk positions where you're making $10 an hour.

Robert Alexander:

One benefit. I'm a person where, if I'm in a room, I can't just not talk to someone at some point. So, I've made connections, I've networked and that's how you end up on the circuit, because people would be like, "Oh you do good work. Use my name to get into this place." Once you decide that you want to leave doc review, those same people will send you associate position jobs or other jobs that they think you might be able to do. But, I think the main benefit of this is the flexibility. Because you can decide not to take a project and they don't necessarily kick you off their list. You can take as many projects as you want. And they understand that a lot of the people doing this are solos or work in small firms and they just need time off for court or vacation or whatever and I've never gotten any flack for any of that. Unless it was a short term project where they were like, "Look. It's only a week long. We need everybody here because we have to get this done."

In those cases, if you're upfront, they'll be like, "Okay. We won't use you for this project, but we'll keep you for another one." But, the flexibility is the main reason to do this.

Kimber Russell:

Yeah. I would agree very much like Naomi, I get bored very easily. So, of a long, long, long term project does not appeal I think. The longest project that I was on was nine months and it was still going after I left it and that was far too long. That was far, far too long. Usually two to three months is about the sweet spot. I know a lot of folks like a six month project, but to me at that point, it's just looking at the same stuff over and over again. One of the problems with this model too is that, some of the flexibility has been, I feel getting rained in a little bit. More and more of the various firms that do manage services, that hire us are doing what they call core hours. Some places used to have 24 hour facilities. Now some places have a 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM facility. But some places, they want you to keep regular business hours and that makes it much less flexible because part of the benefit of doing this in certain places is, you could do 6:00 to 2:00, 7:00 to 3:00.

I got a unicorn. And this is the only time I've heard of this, I don't know anybody else who's had this. I got a remote project in the city of Chicago. Almost unheard of, and it was during the winter. It was a gold mine. It was fantastic. I was able to work exclusively from home. I kept my own hours. Now in that case, they did want us to keep business hours only because, much of the team was actually located in Australia. I didn't have a problem with that. I'm already home. That's the bonus. The reason that a lot of people will do the crazy like I did... I got up at 4 30 in the morning, so I could get downtown for 6:00 AM and work until 2:00. Just eating lunch at my desk, so I could get out of there is just, so that you can get home. If I could do remote, I would do it. I could keep regular business hours.

The thing is, it's getting harder to have those more convenient hours where you could come in, work for a few hours, take a long lunch, and then dip out, come back in. They really are starting to want to control the hours more and I find that less appealing now than when I first started.

Robert Alexander:

Well yeah, if you're going to control my time like that, you should pay me like an employee. You should give me benefits. Part of the reason I'm a contractor is because I wanted the freedom. Not to be tied down, not to be reigned in.

Kyle McEntee:

On that note, Robert, let's talk a little bit about the pay. Here are the statistics that I've come to know about Chicago and you all tell me if you think it's about right. About $17 an hour if you don't have a law license, $24 an hour if you are licensed but don't have experience. And then for the experienced doc reviewer, market rate now is about $28 an hour, and then the high end is around $35 an hour and that's when you have some specialized knowledge or language proficiency. Does that seem about right to you all?

Robert Alexander:

I feel like the language proficiency tends to be more than 35. Closer to 40 or 50. And if it's a very rare language, like 80 or a 100. I think that, pretty much your numbers are spot on because I've gotten a $17 project and I quickly quitted and went back to the kitchen.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

I've seen slightly higher rates. I would probably say around 20 an hour for just straight JD or 21. And with your license, the market even without experience is about hovering like 27, 28. I think it comes during certain times this season. Right now, I keep getting, flooded with emails on licensed attorneys, $30 an hour, $30 an hour. No experience needed, because they need to staff these projects. For foreign language, which is a point that I want to make. If the person speaks any foreign language like French, Korean, Japanese, any Asian languages, not so much African. And I know that's project dependent, but it's a really good way to make quick money fast, especially if you want to save for some reason and you can't break into the field right away.

Kyle McEntee:

I want to point out a phrase you used there and you said, break into the field. So you don't consider yourself broken into the legal profession?

Naomi Tesfamichael:

So, based on my doc review experience, especially the earlier project, I don't consider that breaking into the field per se. It's just to me, there's no... As Robert was saying, you can parlay that into experience and write it in a way on your resume that seems appealing. But no, I don't really consider at least my experience for what I've done as breaking into the field. But I think, Kimber's extensive contract experience and that is a way of getting exposure to different areas, that's valuable just but straight, at least for the JD with no license. It's really just a job at that point.

Kyle McEntee:

Kimber, how about you? Do you feel like you've broken into the legal profession in a way other than you are already in your sales positions? Because those were all related to the law in some capacity?

Kimber Russell:

Well, I don't feel that all this work has been without value. Again, because like Robert said, I've met a lot of people, I've made a lot of connections. I've had the opportunity to work in many, many different firms and see various different cultures, see how they treat people here versus how they treat people there versus what the expectations are here. But, as far as the practice of law, I still feel there's a certain shame and there's a certain underclass mentality that's attached to being on the circuit. It's very difficult to rise above that. And, I've just recently applied at a mid-size firm in Chicago and did everything I could to use the different types of projects, the different types of exposure, plus the fact that I have serious writing ability from law school, into getting just a regular associate job in so far no bites. Because, there still seems to be this stigma. And I don't understand it, because this is what an associate does. This is what lawyers do. We're doing legal work.

For all that, some of it is mindless. I think that, that doesn't boil down to necessarily the nature of the work so much as people not understanding how to use the review tools. Because there's been... There are certain law firms that really know how to set up a review. They know how to get right to the core. They know how to filter out the duplicates, filter out the ephemera, filter out the empty email invites and things like that and get straight to the stuff that you really need to look at. And sometimes, they don't because I feel that there's certain agencies that like to pat out the experience, so that they can hire many more people, they can bill us out. The thing about doc review is that, I feel it creates perverse incentives to keep projects going longer, to staff more people than you need to, to artificially lower the rate of review in a way that keeps the project going for longer than it would need to, just by dent of not filtering out the material that's not relevant.

So to answer the question, I don't feel I've broken in into the legal field, even after doing this for two years. Because the legal profession doesn't recognize us as lawyers.

Robert Alexander:

Even though they require a license for so many of these projects.

Kimber Russell:

Absolutely.

Robert Alexander:

I don't have my license yet, but I keep getting flooded with these emails and I'll email them back, "Do you have a JD project?" And they're like, "Oh no." But I'm sitting here thinking, I've done all of that. I've QCed that before, but now you're requiring a license for it.

Kyle McEntee:

And by QC you mean quality control?

Robert Alexander:

Right. I've looked over the attorney's work and caught their mistakes. But somehow I don't qualify to do this work. But I would say that, doing this work, I have gained some knowledge of the legal profession. If only from talking to other people who actually are practicing or half practiced, because a lot of people are like, "I'm tired of this. I'm tired of the rat race. I just want to do this." And they still use their legal minds and their legal educations because, we do have skills and knowledge that's important to this work. But I also think that, it's not necessarily going to help me in the practice that I want. But if you want to go into compliance or some other financial firm or something like that, I feel like this is a valuable experience. Because once you put it on there, recruiters see it and they'll help you craft the language to show the skills and not necessarily the work. Because the work, nobody cares about the work. But, it's about the skills that you get from it.

I feel like, looking at all these documents, engaging in negotiations, for contracts... I get messages from recruiters for financial firms, for banks, property management companies. I get messages from these people all the time because I have gained a skillset just through this work. Those positions can be in-house. You can go into GCs offices with those, but they're very narrow.

Kyle McEntee:

What do you mean by narrow?

Robert Alexander:

Because I don't think that the public defender's office would see my doc review work and say, "Oh yeah, let's bring Robert in for an interview."

Kyle McEntee:

Got it. So you mean the employers who'd be willing to hire, that's the narrowest segment as opposed to hiring you for a narrow segment of work?

Robert Alexander:

Right. Right.

Kimber Russell:

Yeah. And I think that's the thing. What I still have had trouble understanding after all these years. Especially because the great recession caused a lot of us to off ramp. Some of us had to take whatever jobs we could find. And sales was it for me. I learned a lot of great skills for sales that are very applicable to the legal profession, which requires you to sell yourself, to sell your firm to cross so other practice areas within your firm. That's all very valuable. But for some reason, we still have this unfortunate need for prestige in the legal profession. It's all about where you went to law school? It's all about what your first job was? It's all about what your ranking... You can't escape it. There's no way to just look at. The skillset that you have, look at my writing samples. Who cares what I was doing for these last years?

Can I write or can I not write? Do I have attention to detail or do I not? Do I make a valid argument or do I not? Do I not have a skillset that will enable your firm to please the clients? It all comes down to this real misunderstanding and misapprehension of what lawyers do and why we do it.

Kyle McEntee:

So we have a very hierarchical profession looking at just the law firm model as one example. We can start with just looking at the various firms. You have the white-shoe law firms based in New York. You're not based in New York, then that's maybe a mark against you. And then you've got the other firms who've walked down the vault 100 and number 90 has less prestige and number 80 and number 70, number 60, and there's a rat race there. And that rat race also exists within the law firm. So you've got the equity partners and then you've got the non-equity partners, then you've got the associates. Now we've got staff attorneys. And then on top of that, now we've got the people that they contract out to. So we've got the document reviewers. And then even within that, there is another underclass, namely those who are with a JD but without a bar license. Often doing the same work as their licensed counterparts, but getting paid sometimes up to 40% less.

It strikes me as... As I listened to this conversation against that backdrop, Robert, you've mentioned you've made important connections and you've had recruiters contacting you. Also, it strikes me that this isn't what you want to do. So, why is it that after that you're still doing it?

Robert Alexander:

So for me, I needed the flexibility to study for the bar exam and to really figure out if I wanted to practice law? And before I passed the bar exam, it was easy to convince myself that I didn't want to practice law. But now that I've passed, I really do want to practice law.

Kyle McEntee:

And you get sworn in on Tuesday, I believe, right?

Robert Alexander:

Yes.

Kimber Russell:

Congratulations.

Robert Alexander:

And I can't wait. But, because I am going to be a solo, this is a easy way for me to stay in the money and not have to worry about bills, because I'm going to have to go out here almost four years. I was away from the legal field completely. So, while my classmates were associates or clerks or even doing pro bono, I was working two jobs in kitchens, not even thinking about the law. That's part of the issue with transitioning from doc review to a job. I feel like it'll be pretty easy for Naomi because she's a recent grad. So people will be like, "Oh." They don't really expect her to know how to be a lawyer, because you know what they say in law school. You don't learn how to be a lawyer in law school. You learn that on the job.

I don't know why it doesn't apply to people who've been out of law school for a while, but it's like, if you have been out of law school for a while, people expect me to be a fifth year associate and I'm like, "I'm just looking for an entry level position. Give me a chance." But because I've been out, I'm supposed to be an associate, I'm already supposed to know how to be a lawyer, as opposed to them being willing to teach me.

Kyle McEntee:

It's almost like you're damaged goods.

Robert Alexander:

Right. Doc review actually gave me... And I guess it's because I've been successful at it, has given me confidence to be like, "You know what? I can do this." I don't need somebody to give me a chance in a law firm. I'll just open my own practice. And I think it's because of the variety of the work. It's taught me like, "I can learn this stuff." I don't need rely on my law school knowledge. Of course, that will get you in trouble anyway, but I don't have to rely on that. I find it really bizarre that you would pass over seasoned professionals for newbies, without any consideration of what they would be bringing to the table.

Kimber Russell:

Yeah. It's interesting because what Robert was saying, there's such a diversity not just in the material that we're exposed to in doc review, but the people. You see people straight out of law school like Naomi. You see people who've off ramped and then on ramped. Women who had babies, who were dipping their toes back in. Lots of solo practitioners. Big law refugees. People who just decided that the legal practice wasn't for them, they just want something mindless where they can listen to podcasts all day. Public defenders who got sad, people who worked at the public guardian's office, who got sad. People who worked at the prosecutor's office, who got sad. There's a lot of sadness in this profession is what I'm saying. When I first started doc review and I saw people in their sixties and people who were 25 years old, it kind of gave me comfort in a way, that I could always have something to do until the robots take over. Which maybe could happen.

I've seen Westworld. It just lets you know that, there are a lot of us out there. Part of this stigma, part of this shame is that we're not talking about it. We are needed. The law firms need us. If they didn't need us, why am I and Naomi and Robert every day getting 10, 12, 14 urgent, price increase, come work for us, and you better believe they're billing us out far higher. What really kills me is, how people have so internalized this shame about what we do. We do a valuable service. So, why are we afraid to talk about what we do? Why are we ashamed to talk about who we are? I feel like I'm coming out. I am a doc reviewer. We're here. Get used to it.

Robert Alexander:

I completely agree with that. When I graduated from law school, everybody was weirded out because I decided to cook. But then, we got over that and then when I left the kitchen and I started doing doc review, my classmates would give me a sad smile when I told them that I was doing doc review and I was like, "What is this about?" I didn't know to be ashamed of it, so I'm not."

Kyle McEntee:

But there's real world implications to the opinions that others have.

Robert Alexander:

Well, yeah. And I didn't know that that stigma was out there, because I worked in career services when I was in law school. That was one of the jobs we would tell people about. People who would come in, the beginning of the three oh year talking about, "Oh my God, I don't have a job. What am I going to do?" We would tell them about the listserv, full of document review jobs. To me, it seemed perfectly reasonable. You have a law degree, these jobs need a law degree, go do it and get some money. But they would be like, "I can't do doc review." It didn't make sense to me. I was like, "Okay. Well, go ahead. Do what you need to do."

Naomi Tesfamichael:

Unlike Robert, I actually until today was not aware of the stigma associated with being a document reviewer. I think it speaks to the nature of the job market here in Chicago. I know many classmates, as a recent graduate, I know many classmates doing doc review with their licenses. And I think, partly it's because of the pay. The pay is so attractive, even if you're getting paid 21, 22, $25 an hour, in some ways, that's more than what they're considering to pay you as an attorney or staff attorney. Let's say you don't go to big law, so you to want to be a family law attorney or some other type of attorney. The salary that they're offering with no benefits, it's kind of like, well, you're forcing people to stay in this career because this is just about surviving. That's just how I see it.

Kyle McEntee:

So, there you're talking about some of the jobs that some of our listeners may have seen that are like $30,000, no benefits.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

Yes.

Kyle McEntee:

And high expectations of the kind of work you'd be doing, potentially in violation of labor loss.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

Yes.

Kyle McEntee:

That kind of work.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

Absolutely. Yes.

Kyle McEntee:

So let's put these numbers in context. At $30 per hour, your salary would be $60,000. But that annualization has two important assumptions. One is that, you work 40 hours per week, and the other is that you work 50 weeks per year.

Kimber Russell:

Correct. And that's not the case. For most people who are on the circuit, there is significant downtime.

Kyle McEntee:

So what goes into whether you can get all your hours?

Kimber Russell:

Within individual agencies, you do get a reputation. You get a reputation. If you are the person who is super fast, but your work is crappy and requires constant QCing, you're not going to be the first person on the list. If you're very, very slow but methodical, you might not get called back first, but you might get put on the long-term projects. There is a truth that there are certain agencies that have an all-star list of people that always can get called back. And I'm fortunate enough to be one of the people that I can just call up a firm and say, "Hey, I'm going to be done with a project soon. Do you have something coming up?"

Kyle McEntee:

And, what about a list of say, non-all stars?

Kimber Russell:

There's this misapprehension that there's something called a blacklist. That all the employers in the entire city of Chicago or possibly the world, have gotten together in a big cabal and they've got a list of everybody. Like, "Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope." Not true. It's not a thing. These folks are not that organized. Let's just be real.

Kyle McEntee:

The incentives are completely against doing that.

Kimber Russell:

It wouldn't make no sense. These people are competing with each other. And I have actually been on projects where three or four separate agencies we're staffing for the same job because they couldn't get the specific people they needed, like myself who had Foreign Corrupt Practice Act experience. But I do believe that it is very difficult if you don't know how to navigate this. If you're a new attorney or if you don't really understand how the circuit operates, that you can have significant downtime of up to two to three months a year.

Robert Alexander:

That actually happened to me once. I ended up getting onto a long-term project, but it was to the point where I had blown through all the money I had saved and I was like, "Man, I have to have to go back to the kitchen again?" But, I reached out to one of the companies I had worked for before and the recruiter was like, "Yes. We actually have a project starting Thursday and I'm putting you on it." I actually found out from one of my friends that they had the project. But before that, I had worked at this company on four or five other projects. I just kept getting rolled off onto new projects. The reason there was a lag was because there just wasn't any business. It was like the slow season and they have permanent people who do doc review. So they had to get them on first.

But I would talk to people on this project and I'd be like, "Oh, okay. So where else have you worked?" And they would be like, "Oh, I've only done doc review here." And I'm like, "Is it that steady?" And they're like, "No, man. Sometimes I'm just desperate." And I'm like, "Well, why don't you apply somewhere else?" "Oh, I don't want to be banned from here in case I'm not available." And at the time, they were paying more than any other company in the city, if you didn't have a foreign language. And so, everybody was trying to get in there. It was absurd to me that they would just sit around and wait for one company to give them an opportunity, a phone call, when there's tons of project going on all the time.

Kimber Russell:

That particular company had a very strange policy. According to the employee handbook, though it wasn't explicitly a requirement, the way that it was interpreted by the staff and the way that the company actually wanted you to interpret it was that, if you were not on a project, you were not to work. You were to wait. Because, within the employee handbook it would say, if you're not available when we call you up again, you will lose your current status and you'll become an alumnus and you'll have to reapply. Now, that to me sounds like, "Oh, no problem. Let me just reapply." But some people took that as the word of God and would literally not work for a month at a time when there are two week projects, one week project, three day projects. And one thing that I've noticed is that, there are definitely people who feel like they owe loyalty to one and only one agency, instead of signing up at every single one.

And then when a new project comes along that gives you more money, wrap it up and go work for those guys. People feel very reticent to just skip out and go somewhere where there's more money. Because they feel like they're going to get blacklisted.

Kyle McEntee:

So, I want to shift the conversation to Naomi right now. As a recent graduate, you've been out of school for a year. And as you said before, you didn't realize that there was a stigma. So I'm sitting here feeling a bit guilty and wondering if we are passing on something to the new generation of law school graduates that we shouldn't be. I'm curious to know what is it that could be done in this apparent underclass to reduce that stigma? Let me put out an idea. Would unionizing be something that could advance the cause of people who are doing work that's important to clients, but who feel silenced and feel stigmatized. And to prevent further stigmatization by people trying to break into the profession?

Naomi Tesfamichael:

I think Robert brought up a good point earlier. When he was in school, their career services put it out there that doc review jobs were available. That definitely wasn't my experience. They never uttered those words. A way to reduce the stigma would be to have employers really value people with extensive document review experience. That's something that we can't control. But, I think it's important nonetheless to hear these type of stories and understand that there is a stigma. So when you choose to break into the field that you are equipped with how to navigate, how to parlay your experience. Like I said earlier, I didn't know that there was such a stigma. So, I feel very confident in saying, I had a doc review job I currently do, and this is just my journey. This is my path. I think if we're all transparent about that, we could all help each other in that way.

But even people who've made it on the other side and have the associate positions, choose not to talk about their experiences, which I find very strange because you made it. You've made it. And so, why not pass on that knowledge and experience to those below you and help them understand the field and figure out if it's something that's right for them. But I think it does. I was saying in the beginning, I think it does start with your schools and telling you, "There's a good three, four month period where you're not going to be working right after the bar." People are scrambling to apply for any type of position, and I think it's valuable to just throw it out there for people who are in positions where rent needs to be paid, food needs to be put on the table, and this is an opportunity in the meantime.

Kyle McEntee:

So Kimber, you did the recruitment for this episode, as a host of I Am The Law and you had a lot of trouble?

Kimber Russell:

Yeah. And Naomi hit it right on the head. I actually know multiple people who had to do document review sometimes for a year or two and made it to the other side, as you call it. And this is a dear friend of mine too. I couldn't get this person to talk about, "How he made it? You did it. You made it. Now tell us how we can achieve that or what you did. How did you sell yourself? How did you navigate it?" And he said, "Well, I just don't know that I want my colleagues to know that I used to do it." I'm like, "They already know, because they interviewed you. It was on your resume. They know." I talked to so many people across the board and they're like, "Well, I'm afraid that if somebody hears this that, I'm going to get blacklisted or I just don't want people to know that that's what I'm doing. Or well, my friends think I'm an attorney."

Like, "You are. You have a law license. Why are you not an attorney? You look at legal documents all day. You are making legal inferences all day." And I do think that what I do is valuable. And if I were in a firm for the first, second, third, maybe even fourth year of being an associate, I would be doing this exact thing. So why is it that because I'm getting paid less than the folks that are at a law firm, that I'm not an attorney, I'm not valued, I'm not worthy. It makes no sense to me. And I think that the only reason that this system is pervasive is that, nobody talks about it and nobody wants to be open and honest and say, "What we do is valuable. We're reclaiming it." Because the big law firms and even the mid law firms have found it's much more cost effective to outsource this.

What used to be done with an army of first year associates is now done with an army of usses. That's just how it is. So, why is it different? You all are making money. You all are getting paid. We're getting paid, we're getting paid less, but we're all working together. We're all part of the team. Let's all get together. Now, as far as starting a union, let's talk about that. A lot of people will sit and they will moan and whinge all day about the working conditions, the hours, the people next to you, the guy who will always eat fish next to you. And there's always one. There are things that are going to happen in a workroom. Here's an anecdote for you. I worked on a project recently where an entire project was literally having to dress up basically in hazmat suits every day.

They had these aprons and gloves and they were lifting 50 pound boxes of documents that were covered with dust, and they were getting paid exactly the same amount of money as I was getting paid. To sit and do the clickety click through mindless documents that weren't even relevant for hours and hours and hours a day. And I said to these folks in the lunchroom, why don't you march up all of you together and say, "We're not doing this anymore until we get paid a premium." You should be getting paid at least $10 more an hour, maybe more. They wouldn't do it. They were so terrified that they would be tossed off the project, that they would get blacklisted at that firm. They would not do it. Now again, now Robert and I have been in a situation where we were on a project where we were sold one thing and it became something much more substantive. Where we're literally doing client facing work, we're literally negotiating contracts in Lichtenstein.

Kyle McEntee:

In Japan.

Kimber Russell:

In Japan, everywhere.

Robert Alexander:

I literally would stay after work late, so that I could talk to the Japanese people when they were going to work. And this was really substantive stuff. And there were people down the hallway who were doing the clickety clickety, and they were making the same amount as us.

Kimber Russell:

And the working conditions rapidly deteriorated to the point where people were jumping ship, people are crying at their desks. People are storming out of meetings. I'm not saying one of them was me. It was. But, it was getting unbearable. And when a couple of us demanded more, we were fired. I'll admit I was fired from that project because I demanded, number one, that we all be treated equally. That people of color on the project be treated equally. Because even within that project, as they brought more people on there, there became a two-tiered system, and it rapidly became a three-tiered system where the old veterans were given "Liaisons", many of whom were women, and many of whom were people of color. And suddenly the veterans, even though we were all being paid exactly the same, the veterans decided that they could just boss around these folks, and I wasn't having it.

I marched into the office, I talked to the supervisors, I talked to HR, I told them what was going on and I got fired. It's very difficult for people to stand up. When we got to a point during meetings where... And I have to say they were white men. White men were talking over people. They weren't letting people of color get their questions and women were being talked over. Women would say something and then immediately it would be, "Well, actually what you mean is this." No. What I mean is what I just said. And it got so bad that we had to implement a Talking Stick Protocol.

Robert Alexander:

But let's talk about how that happened. So, I'm a giant person. It's very hard to miss me anywhere. In a crowd, in a room alone, you can't miss me. I'm sitting in the room, my hand is up. Everyone in the room gets called on except for me. Kimber notices that my hand is up. She raises her hand, immediately gets called on. She says, "Well, I think Robert has something to say." So I ask a question and then they completely ignore my question and someone steps on it to ask their question and they answer their question. So, Kimber and I got up and walked out. We were close to quitting at that point, but we decided not to because we needed that money. We talked about it and we came up with what our demands were. And so, we went to management. She went to some, I went to other ones.

We told them what it was that was wrong. And so, we got it to where we had to implement the talking stick. You had to wait for somebody to answer the question, but they were calling these random meetings, no agenda. And then they come in and say, "Well, what are your questions?" We don't even know what this meeting is about? So we got them to establish an agenda. We tried to make a toxic situation better. And when we first implemented it, you could feel the relief on the project. You could see how everybody responded better. Because they felt valued at that moment. Another rule was, once somebody asks a question, no one can say anything until they are satisfied with that answer. They can ask as many follow up questions as they need to. That made people less reticent to ask questions. We were getting more work done because people understood what they were doing.

But, as soon as somebody decided that it wasn't useful, management went along with it. And then they tried to act like, Kimber and I were crazy and what we were experiencing wasn't actually happening. And they literally told Kimber that.

Kimber Russell:

Yeah. There was a level of gas lighting that was completely unacceptable. I've definitely been warning people away from that and telling them to go work at other places. And this is the thing. There's so many different agencies in town that, yeah, my name is mut at this place. But, I do feel that there was a shock wave when I was unceremoniously fired. Because I was a top performer on that team. They were willing to get rid of me, so that they could keep that toxic environment going. That is one reason why making a union would be fantastic, but you're going to have scabs. You're always going to have scabs, because there's always going to be another agency, another place, and even the place that we had a very unharmonious time there. Maybe Naomi might want to work there. Maybe she won't have the same experience. Maybe they've changed their ways. This is the thing about the circuit is, it moves so fast. The agencies change so quickly. Who knows? I could maybe go back after another year. Organizing would be the next logical step, but I don't see it happening anytime.

Kyle McEntee:

How much of that has to do with huge debt payments that you have to make every month?

Robert Alexander:

See, I think it has less to do with that than a culture of fear in this industry, but also this internalization of this idea that we aren't valuable. I believe in radical transparency. So, I'm telling you how much I'm paid. I'm asking how much you're paid. Because if we're doing the exact same work, we should all be making the exact same amount of money. But also, I feel like all of us are underpaid. Even if I'm making $30 an hour, I'm underpaid doing this work. Now, that's a decision that I've made and I'm trying to change it by becoming a solo. But, because the work is valuable and because they are billing us out at a much higher rate than they're paying us. And I know this, because when we demanded more money, they were able to come up with some money. Now, it wasn't an hourly rate increase, but they gave us $500 gift cards.

They gave us a $500 bonus. There's money there. But when you talk to people about unionizing, a lot of these people who have practiced in firms and things like that, they see this as having no value. And so they're like, "Why would we do that?" This is what you signed up for. If you don't like it, you should go somewhere else. Well, there's always that option, but there's also the option that we could unionize and they could pay us more. We could advocate for ourselves, but so many people attacked us for suggesting that we advocate for ourselves. But people will also lie to you and they'll be like, "Oh yeah, I'm with that. I believe in that." And then you [inaudible 00:59:28], because me and Kimber are quick to lead, we're like, "Forget it. We'll go." And then we look behind us. All these people said they were going to March behind us, and then it's just us at the door alone.

And so then of course, they can pick us off, which only increases the culture of fear. So, it's much less to do with, "Oh, I need to keep this job for this debt payment", as opposed to people are beaten down and they have internalized this idea that they aren't valuable.

Naomi Tesfamichael:

I would concur with everything that you just said. In general, even regular jobs, people are afraid to speak for themselves. People are quick to think that they would be fired for even stating their opinion, stating what's right. I've even experienced that at law firms that I worked at as a paralegal prior to entering law school. So the culture of fear, I feel like is a top down approach. So if management is spewing that type of rhetoric, it's going to be internalized with your so-called low level employees. Us. And so, it takes people like Kimber, Robert, myself, to say something, to get other people to be comfortable, to also advocate for themselves. We have a coworker who just didn't know how to ask for a raise and didn't think being a top performer was something that she could use as a bargaining chip. She was really afraid to be fired, and it's like, I had to talk to her and just explain to her the worst that they could say is, "No. Closed mouths don't get fed." If you don't want to ask, you won't receive.

And I think, women and women of color in particular have difficulty broaching that subject. And so after speaking to her, she was able to go ahead and ask for that, and she eventually received it. But, sometimes people are just waiting for leaders to say something and they're like, "Okay. I concur. I concur." People just get intimidated.

Kyle McEntee:

So, how does Robert and Kimber's anecdote where Kimber ends up fired and Robert ends up not on great terms and quitting, how does that affect your outlook on your ability to be an advocate for yourself and for others in this space?

Naomi Tesfamichael:

If you don't feel like you have other options available to you, you're less likely to speak out about anything. I think, both Kimber and Robert have this. This is what it is. This is my opinion, and if you don't respect that, I can gladly find another position. People I've encountered, haven't had that type of mentality. And so, they tend to beat themselves up over it and they're beaten down, but you have to reach a point and have a discussion with yourself like, "Am I ready to walk? What are my points that I'm willing to make? What is the cutoff point? What am I willing to endure at this position?" There's an approach and tactic with that, and I think a lot of the times you bringing that to the table could just result in either them conceding to your points or them saying no, and you still have the job and you still then at that time, should probably figure out what your exit plan is.

Kyle McEntee:

I would think that one advantage of doc review then, at least in Chicago is, there's a lot of competition for you. And it might not push the wages up super high, but even just looking at the summer doc review versus the spring or winter doc review where it pushes the wages up about 10%, that shows that you do have options. And if you're at a law firm, a small firm or a big firm, it's a lot harder to advocate for yourself because once you're out, there's a different stigma attached. Hopefully some doc reviewers will listen to this and see that, because of the competition for them, maybe it's time to start standing up.

Robert Alexander:

And I think that you just hit the nail on the head, because we all were grumbling about this project during the winter. But spring came and we had eyed exit strategies. We didn't necessarily want to get kicked off the project, because we kind of liked working at the place, but just this project was a shit show for lack of a better term. We had asked to get taken off this project, because we liked the company. But once we realized that they were just not open to that, we had tried the polite approach, which is why the meetings changed, things like that. And at some point, enough is enough. And I love Robert so much, and I am always going to advocate for myself. If other people don't, that actually hurts me a lot that people don't feel that they can advocate for themselves. But, this is one of the things that I... This is one of things that most people know about me once they get to know me, I'm always going to root for you.

When you feel like you can't do it, if you tell me, I'm going to gas you up. I'm going to tell you, "You can do this. You do deserve this." And I'm going to ask you, "Why aren't you saying it? Why do I have to say it?" Today, I had to tell one of my friends at work. He's really good at his job. He just expects his work to shine through, and I understand that impulse. But that is not what this is about. Your work can be great and they'll keep giving you work. That's not going to necessarily advance you. That's not going to increase your earnings. You increase your earnings through advocating for yourself through asking for it. But again, you have to value yourself and you have to love yourself. And I have heard so many people on the doc review circuit, who just don't think they deserve more. I guess somehow they see this as penance for not being the number one student in law school or not being on... What is it called?

Kimber Russell:

Law review.

Robert Alexander:

Law Review. I always call it bar review. But for not being on there, they feel like this is their penance and they have to do this and suffer until. I guess at some point they'll get out of purgatory and make it to the heaven of being an associate who gets run into the ground again.

Kimber Russell:

Yeah. My hope for this talk and for having the benefit of the radical transparency of Naomi and Robert here, and I'm on board with radical transparency, is that, anyone out there who's listening, who's on the doc review circuit, whether it be in Chicago, New York, LA, Muncie Indiana, wherever it may be, that you will look at yourself, value yourself, value what you're doing and come out of the shadows and join us in the fight to create a space where it's not shameful, it's accepted, it's valued and it's worthwhile, so that we can advocate better for ourselves and make a better working environment for everyone on the circuit.

Kyle McEntee:

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