1

Transitioning from Document Review to a Permanent Position

One of my 30 before 30 goals was to publish an article in a legal publication.  I accomplished this yesterday, with the publication of an article in the Legal Intelligencer.  The job market for new lawyers has been getting tougher the last few years, and is especially so in Pittsburgh.  The ‘burgh isn’t a big city, but it has two law schools, and that means a lot of young lawyers are always on the job search.  There are quite a number of contract/temp doc review positions around, and a lot of lawyers eager to break out of those positions into permanent ones.  In this article, I interviewed some people very knowledgeable about the industry and this transition, and tried to give some helpful advice to new grads. 

Click below for the article!

Leveraging Document Review Into a Permanent Position

As graduation approaches each spring, soon-to-be graduates crowd into law school career services offices, eager to enter the workforce. “The number one concern I hear from graduating law students,” said Lori McMaster, director of career services at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, “is that they do not have a job lined up upon graduation. But the truth is, many law students do not graduate with jobs already in place.”

Once the bar exam has come and gone, many new graduates who are still seeking employment turn to contract work doing electronic document review, referred to simply as “doc review.” New graduates frequently perceive doc review as a last resort to pay the bills. However, they are increasingly learning that doc review provides an opportunity for developing attractive, transferable legal skills, flexibility to pursue community- and leadership-focused activities, and decent pay. Doc review can provide a valuable starting point for a transition to a permanent position, whether in traditional law practice, a clerkship or other government position, or a nontraditional legal position.

Though this article focuses on lawyers working in doc review as a stepping stone to employment outside of e-discovery, there are also many attorneys for whom e-discovery is an ideal long-term career. Within doc review, there is potential for advancement into project management, e-discovery career associate positions and even e-discovery partner positions.

Although the numbers in the field are constantly in flux, the hiring market for doc reviewers has increased over the last several years, rather than remained flat or decreased, explained Melissa Kelley and Lisa Goldstein, executive directors of the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia offices, respectively, of Special Counsel, the national ESI (electronically stored information) review and legal staffing firm. Kelley and Goldstein estimated that in Pennsylvania, approximately 1,000 attorneys are employed in doc review positions through staffing firms and approximately 500 attorneys are employed for doc review directly by law firms. Among those attorneys, intentions vary widely. Some attorneys work in doc review for three to six months while awaiting bar results and interviewing for other positions. Others make e-discovery into a lifelong career. Kelley and Goldstein further explained that, in recent years, doc review has garnered particularly increased attention from new graduates.

According to McMaster, forces within the legal market have discouraged firms from making hiring promises to new graduates months in advance. Large firms have slashed the size of their summer associate classes or jettisoned the summer associate structure altogether. Small and medium-sized firms frequently base their hiring on immediate need and cannot afford to promise a job to a student who will not be sworn in to practice until several months later. Simultaneously, these same market forces have encouraged the proliferation of doc review positions. With the size and contours of projects in constant flux, it may be more economical for law firms and corporations to bring attorneys in on a project-specific basis than to permanently employ a cadre of attorneys for the specific task of doc review.

McMaster reported that the availability of doc review positions has been a significant benefit to new graduates. Doc review enables the reviewer to develop important transferable legal skills. “Document review is the practice of law,” McMaster emphasized. “Every lawyer has to review documents, whether as part of discovery in litigation or due diligence in a transactional matter.”

Prior to accepting her position with the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, McMaster practiced as a trial attorney for 20 years and then worked for six years as a legal recruiter, placing experienced attorneys into law firms and corporate legal departments. McMaster explained that experience in doc review is consistently viewed positively by hiring partners, who are well aware of economic conditions and shifting hiring trends in the legal marketplace. These hiring partners also understand the value of performing contract work while continuing to pursue a full-time position in a chosen practice area.

“Hiring partners tell me that they are looking for the same thing now that they were looking for 20 years ago: an associate with whom they will feel comfortable working ‘in the foxhole,’ who they will feel comfortable leaving alone in a room with a client, and who they will feel comfortable leaving alone in a room with a judge,” McMaster said. “Consistency, resilience, a strong work ethic and attention to detail are all traits sought by hiring partners, and these are skills developed particularly well in a doc review position.”

Hiring partners perceive a candidate’s work in electronic document review similarly to the way they would view an associate’s first few years in a law firm setting — as acquiring legal skills and knowledge. Though working in document review for an extended period (say two or more years) may make a transition into traditional law practice more difficult, experience in document review for the first year or so out of law school is consistently received positively.

For doc reviewers seeking a career move out of e-discovery, here are tried and true tips for making the transition:

Decide Where You Want To Go

The first step in making your e-discovery contract position work for you is determining the direction you want your career to take. It is important for you to identify your goal, so as to provide focus to your efforts. This includes identifying the kind of permanent position you seek, the area of substantive law you wish to practice and the geographic location where you wish to work.

The truth remains that networking is vital to securing any position. Many open positions never even make it to a job posting, and a recommendation by a friend or colleague can open doors that you may never have known existed or may not have otherwise had any hope of getting through. By identifying your career goals, you can network more effectively and direct your efforts.

Take Doc Review Seriously

In an interview, Leah LaFramboise described her path from a contract e-discovery attorney to an associate. LaFramboise, a 2007 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, spent a stint as a contract e-discovery attorney in Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe’s Wheeling, W. Va., operations center. After nearly a year at Orrick, she was hired by Tucker Arensberg, and later moved over to Babst Calland. The key to a successful transition from contract to permanent work, for LaFramboise, was treating every day of doc review as though it were her permanent position.

Doc review has the potential to become disheartening. The work is sometimes tedious and repetitive. At times there are mass layoffs at the end of large projects, which may create the perception of little loyalty between the firm and the reviewer. Doc review can be fertile ground for the breeding of bitterness. According to LaFramboise, avoiding bitterness is key to ensuring advancement, either within that firm or outside of it.

In addition to working diligently, LaFramboise specifically sought out and worked toward leadership positions in her doc review position. “There is always potential for advancement — if you work hard, you can work your way up into running the doc review projects,” she said. This may pave the way to a permanent position within that firm, or also illustrate your hard work, drive and management skills to interviewers for a permanent position with another employer.

Further, the relationships you build with the firm’s partners and associates are invaluable. “Even if that firm is not open to hiring from its pool of doc reviewers,” LaFramboise said, “if you build good relationships with the associates and partners, they can help you make connections and vouch for you to future employers.”

McMaster agreed that the biggest mistake doc reviewers can make is to treat doc review as passing time. In an interview setting, it is easy to tell when someone is merely “phoning it in.” Skating by on minimal effort and enthusiasm will do nothing to aid future career prospects.

Tailor Your Resume Accordingly

Review and edit your resume to emphasize doc review as the practice of law. A doc reviewer has the potential to explore numerous substantive areas of law and develop valuable concrete legal skills. Simply listing your doc review experience as “document review” gives short shrift to the depth of your skills. Make sure your resume is as specific as possible, particularly concerning the skills most relevant to the position you are seeking.

Take Advantage of Contract Work’s Flexibility

Community involvement sows the seeds of future business development. Because doc review’s hours and schedule tend to be flexible, it provides a perfect opportunity to maximize your volunteering endeavors or service on boards of directors.

These community activities carry heavy weight in distinguishing a good candidate from a great one.

Consider Working with a Recruiter

With doc review, lawyers are retained either directly by the firm or through a placement agency. If the law firm is one known for hiring its contract ranks into permanent positions, starting in a contract position directly with the firm may make you a more attractive candidate, because the firm will avoid recruiters fees when hiring you into a permanent position. If the firm does not tend to hire from its contract pool, it may be beneficial to work with a recruiter. Job searching is time-consuming, and for LaFramboise, working with a recruiter maximized her job search. While LaFramboise was busy reviewing documents, the recruiter continued searching for positions and sending out her resume.

For LaFramboise, working with a recruiter also meant that she was considered for a position she would have never known about otherwise. Tucker Arensberg specifically sought a candidate with advanced document review experience and worked with a recruiter to seek its candidates, instead of posting the position. Though Tucker Arensberg hired LaFramboise for a temporary position, LaFramboise treated the temporary position with the same dedication as any permanent position. When the project at Tucker Arensberg ended, the firm was so impressed with her that they decided to train her for the oil and gas practice group. LaFramboise’s message for doc reviewers seeking to transition outside of e-discovery: “Work hard, be diligent and it will work out.”

Elizabeth F. Collura is an associate in the commercial and corporate litigation practice group of Thorp Reed & Armstrong in Pittsburgh.

 Reprinted with permission from the March 29, 2012 issue of The Legal Intelligencer.  Copyright 2012  ALM Media Properties, LLC.  All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *