Credit: Illustrations by Ilana kohn

Jay Kuperstein had a good job. He worked in New York for the NBA, editing basketball videos. Then he got tired of sitting in front of a video monitor for 15 hours a day and decided to go to law school.

Kuperstein, who is 30 years old, graduated from American University’s law school in 2005. The plan was to become a sports agent. “I thought it would be good with my background and law degree,” he says. “But it turns out it’s a job that’s nearly impossible to get.”

And so this new lawyer found himself sitting in front of a computer for 15 hours a day, working as a temp document reviewer, one of a growing species of big-city lawyer that sifts through electronic documents to determine whether they are relevant to pending court cases and investigations.

Kuperstein does not do research, and he does not write; he does not go to court, and he does not meet with clients. The clients whose cases he works on do not know his name. There is no room for promotion in this job, and there is no health insurance.

But there is the potential of a six-figure salary and also very little stress—except for the stress of knowing that the job may end any minute now, without warning.

Though it’s not what he expected, Kuperstein is happy with his work. His job exists to support big-firm lawyers, who do meet with clients and go to court and research and write. It is tedious, time-intensive grunt work that used to fall to young big-firm lawyers but has now been outsourced to temps.

For more and more law school graduates, this is the legal life: On a given day, they may plow through a few hundred documents—e-mails, PowerPoint presentations, memos, and anything else on a hard drive. Each document appears on their computer screen. They read it, then click one of the buttons on the screen that says “relevant” or “not relevant,” and then they look at the next document.

This isn’t anyone’s dream job, but more and more lawyers in big cities around the country are finding that seven years of higher education, crushing student loans, and an unfriendly job market have brought them to windowless rooms around the city, where they do well-paid work that sometimes seems to require no more than a law degree, the use of a single index finger, and the ability to sit still for 15 hours a day. Is this being a lawyer? It is now.

Dear Marie,

Paris next week for a meeting with [bank name redacted]. Free for dinner?

Yours,

Frank

When you are a temp document reviewer, you live for e-mails that have some spark of humanity in them, even if they are banal and about people who are being investigated by the Department of Justice, because those e-mails are not spreadsheets; they are not brochures or policy statements.

They are also not relevant. A relevant document would be a lot more boring, for the most part, and would not conjure up fantasies of Camembert sandwiches in the park. You know, or something. Move the mouse so the cursor is over the “not relevant” button. Click the “not relevant” button. Click the “next” button. It’s another e-mail—Marie turning Frank down for dinner, saying that she is going to be in Croatia that week. With her boyfriend.

Again, not relevant. At least not to the big-city lawyer. Frank no doubt feels differently. (If there were a real Frank, that is; this e-mail is similar to a real e-mail I’ve seen but is not the exact e-mail, because writing down a real e-mail would be a violation of a contract every temp document reviewer signs pledging confidentiality.)

This is all by way of saying that I have also been a temp document reviewer and probably will be again. I graduated from law school more than seven years ago, with $150,000 in loans. After paying around $1,000 a month for the last seven years, I now owe a mere $101,000. Add to this a wicked wanderlust and certain carelessness with money, and you can see how I end up looking for new ways to pay my bills.

I’d heard about temp document reviewing before I got to D.C. this past summer. A friend told me she’d done it in New York in between full-time jobs; she said it was hell on earth. Another friend was doing it in Boston, where he’d recently moved, and he didn’t seem to mind it too much.

But I thought of my friends as anomalies. I didn’t realize that temp document reviewing was a full-fledged phenomenon until I got to D.C. this last summer and found myself talking with lawyer after lawyer who was doing or had done this work.

Some of these people included a cousin of mine who couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t do the work, especially since I kept asking her to pay for lunch. I resisted at first, because when I was a new lawyer, working as an associate at a big law firm in New York, I had done some document reviewing as part of my job on the firm’s litigation team. Box upon box of paper documents were my territory. The boxes were dusty and aggravated my allergies; the paper was sharp and cut my delicate fingers. I took naps on my office floor when I couldn’t bear to look at more documents. It felt like exquisite torture, spending all those weeks in all those boxes. A friend who was also reviewing documents at his law firm back then said to me he thought he was getting the same box of documents to review, over and over and over, as part of some psychology experiment.

But bills being bills, before long I’d signed up with five or seven of the 60-odd lawyer temp agencies around the city and was put to work.

My first “project,” as these assignments are called, was at a big law firm near the White House. It paid $35 an hour, 40 hours a week—no overtime, clock out for lunch. My brother, another Greenwood child who fecklessly indebted himself for a J.D., was also assigned to this project.

The project started at 9 a.m. on a Monday in a conference room with a nice view, where a lawyer from the firm gave the 20-odd temps an overview of the case (it was a company investigating itself, in anticipation of a Department of Justice investigation—I can’t say more, or I’ll violate a confidentiality agreement I signed; anyway, you don’t really want to know). The lawyer handed us binders with more information about the case—about how we’d discern the relevant documents from the irrelevant—and then a member of the administrative staff told us not to use the Internet too much, or we’d be in trouble.

From there we were taken to our work station: a windowless room filled with computers. We each had a computer; we were trained on the particular computer program we’d be using, then got clicking. Relevant. Not relevant. Not relevant. Not relevant. Two staff attorneys—full-time lawyers hired by the law firm to oversee the temp document reviewers—sat at a table in the front of the room, watching us click in this quiet, quiet room. Mostly quiet room. One of the two sometimes sent around e-mails that said things like:

“We notice that some of you are listening to music too loud on your personal stereos.” And, “We notice that some of you have long fingernails which are making loud noises on the keyboards. Because your job does not require the use of the keyboard, only the mouse, we are confused why we are hearing so much loud fingernail-on-keyboard noise.”

The passive-aggressive e-mails? Not relevant. My music was quiet, and my nails are short. The staff attorney meant those missives for a couple of the other temps.

The rhythm of the day, for me, was that in the morning, I’d arrive and get coffee and then sit happily enough at the computer reviewing documents and surfing the Internet, on and off, for three or four hours. Most of the documents were fairly dull—spreadsheets, brochures, e-mails talking about financial stuff. Every once in a while I’d get a good e-mail, not as good as the e-mails the other people said they’d sometimes seen—things about people getting divorces and arguing about their child visitation rights, arranging secret rendezvous, and downloading porn—but things like: “Hey dude, I’m in Hawaii with my wife. She sure likes to spend money. Nice hotel. How’s the XYZ deal going? Paul”

Oh, I’d think. Hawaii. Hawaii sounds nice. Then I’d look up the hotel where Paul said he was staying and see what amenities it had, if it was close to town.

The documents we reviewed had some chronological order, so after I read about Hawaii, I read e-mails between Paul and the dude about Paul’s return from Hawaii, about how both Paul and the dude hated some other co-worker who had undermined Paul’s efforts to put together a certain deal, about the dude’s attempts (foiled!) to buy a house, and so on. I read enough about these senders that I got mildly involved in their lives and started hoping the deal would go through, the bid for the house would be accepted.

The document review room was nearly silent except for the sounds of computer clicking, the sounds of people eating, and the sounds of someone’s too-loud personal stereo or too-long nails on the keyboards.

But we temp lawyers got to talking around the coffee machine or in the bathroom. The other temp lawyers seemed to come from every walk of lawyerly life—one had left an associate job at another firm, another was trying to make it in the hip-hop world. A third was looking for a job as a patent lawyer, maybe, or maybe he’d just do document review and travel between projects. A woman told me that usually she did document reviews in foreign languages—she speaks Dutch, she said—and makes more money doing that. An older man told me he’d recently retired from the federal government. It seemed as if people fell into one of three camps: people who only wanted temp jobs because they liked the freedom; people who were between regular jobs; and people who were stuck doing document review forever—not between jobs, because there were no jobs to be between.

For lunch, I’d go to the firm cafeteria for a tomato and mozzarella sandwich, which I’d eat in front of the computer so as not to waste time. And with lunch eaten, I’d sit at the computer for another few hours and despair—this is what I was doing with myself? With my fancy law degree? My friends were becoming well-known, they were making a lot of money, and this anonymous, stupid work was what I was doing with myself?

Then I’d spend a surreptitious hour looking for other jobs, hoping the staff attorneys wouldn’t notice, hoping they wouldn’t send me an e-mail saying, “We notice that some of you are looking to get fired…” I never got this e-mail.

After that, I’d settle back into my life and review documents for another couple of hours and feel OK about it. The day was almost over, I’d go for a nice walk after work, see a movie, or get some drinks, and I’d have earned enough money over the course of the day to keep myself fed and housed, and then some.

This was the easiest job I’d ever had, the only job that was neither physically nor intellectually taxing, and I was making nice money. Every day was the same, every day was quiet, every day was a combination of angst and contentment, until the day that one of the two staff attorneys—the more chatty one— unexpectedly stood up and said the documents had all been reviewed, and it was time for us to go home. If it had been the other staff attorney sending us back into employment, I’m sure she’d have done it by e-mail: “We notice that there is no need for you to come to work anymore…”

You may have noticed that there are too many lawyers, more now than ever before.

From Jan. 1, 2000, until today, the New York Times published 20 or so articles about the skyrocketing salaries and staggering bonuses that brand-new baby lawyers were getting. An article from Feb. 2, 2000, talks about first-year lawyer salaries rising to $140,000 per year; an article from Oct. 27, 2000, discusses the $35,000 bonuses for new lawyers at big law firms. An article from Aug. 1, 2000, talks about law students earning $2,000 a week as they worked at law firms during their summer vacations. By Sept. 1, 2006, the Times was reporting that first year salaries had gone up to $145,000, before bonuses.

Perhaps because of the lawyer’s pay scale and the burst of the dot-com bubble, applications to law schools went up, up, up. According to the American Bar Association, in the 1999-2000 academic year, 132,276 were enrolled at American Bar Associationnapproved law schools. By 2003-2004, that number had jumped to 145,088. In 2006-2007, it’s 148,698.

New law schools opened; some got accredited. (There are 195 accredited law schools in America now; there were 175 in 1990.) Hordes of new law school graduates went to law school and graduated, expecting that they were about to strike it rich (or at least rich by normal standards—first-year lawyers making $145,000 a year still manage to complain that they’re not earning enough, according to a February 2005 New York Times article titled “Six Figures? Not Enough!”).

The cost of law school also rose by a staggering amount, meaning law students had to take out higher loans. In 1985, the average law school tuition and fees were $7,526, according to the American Bar Association. By 2006, the average law school tuition and fees were $30,520. The average law school debt in 2006 was $83,181.

Who cares about debt when lawyers rake in all the money, right?

Well, they don’t.

A little more than 10 percent of new law school graduates are earning $135,000 as a starting salary. But the median starting salary for an employed law school graduate is $62,000 per year, according to the National Association for Legal Placement (NALP), an organization that studies legal hiring. And the small firms that employ most new graduates pay closer to $40,000 per year. It’s not enough if you’re going to make your loan payments, your rent payments, and still have money left for caviar.

The flood of indebted lawyers comes at an ideal time for big-city firms. These places have always had to sift through documents in the “discovery” phase of litigation, when the parties must submit all materials relevant to the case at hand. And for ages, that was a very manual exercise, in which junior associates would rummage through boxes of documents in search of the relevant ones.

Computers compounded that task. The documents that now have to be reviewed include everything on the hard drives of any person at a company who might be involved with the subject of the lawsuit or investigation.

If there were thousands of documents to review before, now there are millions. There aren’t enough law firm lawyers to review all those documents—companies can’t afford that luxury, not when the work takes months and most junior lawyers are billed out at $200-plus per hour.

But the documents have to be reviewed.And there are lots of lawyers to do the reviewing.

More and more attorneys are signing up to do this temp work, recruiters and lawyers tell me. And there’s more and more temp work to do since there is a growing amount of the activity that leads to big document reviews—namely, mergers and acquisitions and oversight of mergers and acquisitions. New recruitment agencies are cropping up all the time; they’re opening up offices around the city—some with windows and some without—dedicated to temp document review projects.

The District of Columbia Bar—the body that keeps track of lawyers in this city—says that there were 45,431 active lawyers in D.C. as of March 2007. Reliable numbers on the number of temp document reviewers for D.C. aren’t available—partly because the number is always changing (it is temporary work, after all) and partly because no one is keeping track. But recruiters tell me they estimate there are anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 lawyers doing temp document review on any given day. And they get more résumés every day.

If you ever want to feel good about your life, however bad it is, read a blog by Tom the Temp, a New York-based temp document review lawyer.

In Tom the Temp’s blog, which you can read at temporaryattorney.blogspot.com, I read about temporary attorneys slaving away in sweatshops, about cruel and inhumane workplace conditions including locked fire exits, filth, and blocked toilets. I also read that temp document review attorneys become stigmatized by their temp work—that once they’ve been temp document reviewers for a year or two, they can never move on to anything else—meaning they become an underclass of attorneys.

“The conditions were horrific. There were about 15 of us…packed into a small, windowless conference room,” the blogger writes. “It appeared as if the room had previously served as a supply closet.…Talking was forbidden. A heavy-set paralegal would periodically come around and bellow out in a deep, baritone voice to do, “more workin’ and less talkin’.” Like a child, you had to sign out to use the restroom.…One day, a middle-aged woman, who had recently been laid off from her in-house job, broke down in tears.”

About a project unexpectedly coming to an end: “Apparently, after having been promised six months of steady employment (many of us turned down other projects based on this assumption), over 100 of us were suddenly, without notice, dumped out onto the sidewalk just three weeks after the project had commenced…”

And describing a firm’s attempt to discover the identity of Tom the Temp and the ubiquity of same: “When you look with disdain at the ‘Temps’ or you encourage your employees to do so, you illustrate your morality. These ‘temps’ are people too, many of whom had dreams to be Perry Mason, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Clarence Darrow or Marty Lipton and not Perry Doc Review.…Look in the mirror, Tom the Temp is on every project, he is sitting next to you, he is a paralegal, he is an associate, he is a she, he has a friend who is a temp, he is your friend and he is your enemy and he may at times even yes, be YOU. I pray for a world where Tom the Temp is not necessary but unfortunately that may never happen.…WE ARE ALL TOM THE TEMP.”

Christopher Anderson is not Tom the Temp. He is, instead, a patient and bearish-looking guy with shaggy blond hair and a rumpled short-sleeved shirt who has been a document review lawyer since February.

Anderson, 39, was in private practice for 10 years in Rochester, N.Y. He and his father were the only attorneys in the practice, which encompassed just about everything—some criminal work, some civil litigation, a little of this and a little of that. Then Anderson married a mathematician who got a job in D.C., and he followed her here, thinking that with his “vast experience it would be no trouble to get a job with a small firm or with the public defender’s office.”

It was a lot of trouble. Anderson had a lot of interviews but no job offers. “At the public defender’s office, they said, ‘We’ve got a whole stack of résumés just like yours,’” he says.

Someone told Anderson about temp document review. He started doing it on a project that lasted for months. Then that job ended and another long-term project started. “I’ve been remarkably happy,” he says. “I’m making more money at this than at any other job I interviewed for and just about any other year in private practice. The work itself is mindless, which has its pluses and minuses. If I screw up, I don’t have to worry about my guy going to jail. In private practice, you never stop thinking about the case. With this, when you walk out of the door, it’s gone.”

Anderson says he expects—gladly—to do this work for another two years, by which time he’ll have paid off his student loans. He owed $110,000 when he graduated from law school and is down to $85,000 today. Then he can afford, he says, to take a more complicated job that is, in all likelihood, going to pay him less than half of what he can earn as a temp document reviewer.

He says that he hasn’t minded document review and doesn’t feel worried about much except keeping on working. “People are awful concerned about when the job will end,” he says. “But that’s a little more of the reality of the situation. They say that if you do this for more than a year that it’s a blot on your résumé. But to who? I’m not going to a big law firm anyway. I don’t think the work is nearly as rewarding as actually having clients, but I don’t think you’re untouchable because you’ve done it.”

Joseph Miller, 30, a temp document review attorney who graduated from New York Law School in 2002, also disavows any notion of a stigma. He’s just worried that the doc reviewers will stagnate on their own. There is no natural progression of temp document reviewing to any other job—and there are no real job training or networking resources available to them, either. Plus, he says, temp document review lawyers are prone to thinking of themselves as bottom-of-the-barrel and good for nothing but what they’re doing.

Miller started a Web site—JDWired.com—that he’s hoping will get these lawyers thinking about training and careers. Elsewhere on the Internet, there are temp document attorney Listservs and online bulletin boards where temp document reviewers are hashing out these same issues, with various levels of angst and humor. There’s talk of unionizing, too, and lots of discussion of why the temp agencies take such big cuts.

I am told that the agencies are paid about $51 per hour, around $35 of which is given to the temp attorneys themselves. Temp document review wages haven’t increased in about two years. In fact, it looks like the wages are actually going down right now—to $32 an hour. It doesn’t bode well for temp document reviewers. This fall the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles about miserable recent law school graduates who can’t find jobs. And at the same time, applications to law school are finally going down. Perhaps by the time the temp document review jobs all get to India, there won’t be this surplus of lawyers in the U.S. to do the work, anyway. Here’s hoping the loans are paid off by then.

I met a former document reviewer one Saturday morning. He’s moved away from D.C., to a better job, but comes back to visit and is still active in the D.C. temp document reviewer community. He asked me not to publish his name.

This guy said there were a lot of upsides to this work—the money, the flexibility, the colorful co-workers. He said he’d managed to use the “temp” nature of this work to travel—he took projects in Connecticut and Los Angeles and New Orleans and all over America, wherever documents needed to be reviewed.

There were downsides, too­—the normal downsides of work, the particular downsides of this kind of work. But the worst part about this job, when he was doing it, was going home for Thanksgiving and trying to explain what he did to relatives. They knew he’d graduated from law school, but this wasn’t really being a lawyer; he didn’t have a full-time employer, he didn’t have a good story to tell them about what his job was all about, he didn’t know how to help them with their divorces and their slip-and-falls. Corporate lawyers and government lawyers couldn’t help their relatives with divorces or slip-and-falls, either, but at least they could tell a good yarn about who they worked for and what they did know about. He had to try to explain that he knew about documents.

And, like all the things you really can’t explain to your relatives at Thanksgiving, that was just embarrassing.

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