Document Review For Contract Attorney Dummies

This is yet another post by our – now famous – guest writer Andrea, who is a very experienced multilingual contract attorney and moderator of the LinkedIn group “e-discovery Multi Lingual Project Attorneys“. Andrea is very keen on revealing the contract attorney industry’s bright and dark sides. Today’s topic is document review for contract attorney dummies 

Isn’t it funny how you can go through 3 years of law school and never once hear the words “document review”? Everyone prepares you for the traditional role of a big law firm associate into which only the top 10% of your class may ever aspire to enter and here you are making your temporary way in through the back door.

Perhaps one should explain to all of those innocent law school grads what document review is – what they always wanted to know but law school was too embarrassed to admit it – was preparing them for at a cool 100 grand in tuition fees, the Socratic method of sleep deprivation, coupled with silly questions by law school divas on tenure who are either borderline insane or brilliant and at times both at once, after spending years going blind from reading senseless opinions of C students who should not have any, penned by confused 2Ls during their Judicial Law Clerkship, and who later in the course turn out to have been overturned, yes here is something not even Judge Cardozo would have an opinion on: document review.

In simple terms Blackacre (Schwarzenegger for the linguists amongst you) sues Greenacre over something. The judge then determines the scope of discovery and we are in business – everyone gets to shuffle papers, exchange them, asks for more papers and so one and so forth.  Of course no one can really be trusted to hand over documents to the other side which show how guilty they really are, thus this job is entrusted to us: officers of the court. We get to sort through the company’s files, all of them! Yes, that includes SMS or text messages (I was just asked the other day if I can read French text messages – the answer being – Mais, non! I am still struggling with English LOL ;-)), meta data (the stuff you thought you deleted) voice messages, private e-mails (love those office romances and secretaries dishing it out about their new colleague), and much more.  We determine what the other side and the honorable judge get to see – that is, what is relevant.

Once we figure out that something is relevant to the case – this is a process which can get highly technical like finding the name of a product being sued in a document even if it has nothing even remotely to do with the suit – we turn to our coding manual. This is sometimes written by people at least vaguely acquainted with the case, sometimes it seems to have just been a folder which someone found lying around the office and decided to recycle by giving it to the new reviewers. I have worked on suits where the firm had handled many previous projects and people had worked there close to a decade. This meant that the manual no longer really meant what it said but had taken on a verbal gloss. After a while we also learned what words and concepts had come to mean over the years and tried our best to teach this to newcomers who invariably in a stubborn manner kept pointing to the written word as if it were a legal text (no this is not law school anymore). Still in law school back-stabbing mode (I hear in some fine institutions of higher legal learning it is not uncommon for students to rip pages out of law library books to prevent those coming after them to do the same research for their legal writing paper. Yes Survivor Island – Law School – maybe coming soon maybe canceled because it was too brutal for Prime Time) thinking we were deliberately misleading them, tricking them into making mistakes to be fired. OK whatever…have it your way.

Confidentiality is a tricky subject and thus not funny – what does the other lawyer get to see but not his client?

Privilege – lawyers involved – thus even less funny! But at least no-one from the other side gets to see it unless you screw up – good time to follow what is happening in the McDermott suit in case you suddenly need to skip town – and the country – does Brazil still not have an extradition treaty or do you have to go even further? I hear North Korea is nice this time of year and you can add valuable language skills for a higher-paying language review job.

Next you look for Key Issues – the stuff that upset the other side enough to sue in the first place.  Also a place where you can find something good or bad about your client, which you send up the chain for the litigators to use in court to show what a saintly corporate citizen your client really is or to pray over that the other side will not discover in the truck load of documents it gets to see and to prepare to defend in case it does.

The rest is kind of up to the individual review – some very lazy litigators who do not want to actually ever open the files but just look at the log make coding jungles out of the coding tree (and then wonder why it takes you so damn long to review each document). Others want you to leave notes for each document – I am still talking English language documents here. Usually it is not so complicated and you tick a couple of boxes, move on to the next document and on with your life.

For foreign language documents you usually do a summary translation. As a rule of thumb lawyers freak out when they see a foreign language – even if it is translated in the paragraph below of that same document. So they want to know as much as possible until they get back to their comfort level. Of course you have two thumbs – and the rule of thumb for your second thumb is – they want to get rid of the foreign reviewers who are more expensive than their English counter parts asap. Needless to say we are also always too slow. I have heard through the grapevine that people thought we were conspiring to drag out the review and other higher ups tried inspiring us by sharing with us how much faster they would be if only they spoke our language. To which I say “here have a dictionary – knock yourself out.” It helps and prolongs your stay on the review to say this in the language they just admitted not speaking. :-)

Document families – like their human counterparts – can be tricky where one document makes others, if not all, relevant. A child messes up and the parent is in for it as well.

Oh yes the wonderful world of redactions. I knew I had forgotten something here or rather repressed it.  Companies seem to insist on creating documents which list several of their products in the same document where you get to redact all products not being sued. Financials are my all time favorite – I worked for a company which managed to create 5000 page spreadsheets listing every yellow marker they bought that month, the coffee they consumed and yes also the product we were looking for. So you get to electronically white out lots of information. Of course there is also personal information such as home addresses, credit card numbers and patients’ names, which you redact. Sorry this job is so mind numbingly boring that even I cannot come up with a joke here. Note to the IRS agent, the only other person who may ever get to see these : I feel your pain! The missing tea bags from pg 1235 can be found on pg 4038 under stationery.

And there you have it in a nutshell. Your first legal job out of law school which pays enough so that you can service your student loans and gives you a chance at having a life before the grim reaper redacts you when your personal rule against perpetuities catches up with you like a springing interest.

Check out my Super Coder Cartoon (yeah, I am no graphic designer….)

Check out the previous posts by Andrea, where she shared her experience and thoughts on the industry’s standards for contract attorneys including useful tips on how to deal with language tests, what to consider as a European contract attorney wanting to work in the USA, how to be über-prepared and be a review-platform master and how to avoid traps in the overtime structure of your next document review offer.

You can reach Andrea on her LinkedIn profile and via email at:

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9 thoughts on “Document Review For Contract Attorney Dummies

  1. I am still a baby chicken aka law student but am very interested in getting some experience in document review work. It sounds like it is a job that could earn one a good living but at the same time is not as hierarchical as some law firms and allows some level of flexibility. Love your blog! Keep up the good work.

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    • Thanks Tanya,

      Glad you are enjoying my little articles and welcome to the crazy world of document review!

      Yes, you can earn a good living doing document review. I was offered actual jobs paying $25,000/year without benefits, $30,000/year with benefits after 6 months (both in Miami and as lawyer) and $45,000/year in NYC as a paralegal and I have earned $12/h working part time as legal assitant in Miami after I was already licensed. I am fortunate enough to do language review most of the time so I go into the six figures base now.With what I earned in ’08 in Philly and paid in taxes I expect streets to be named after me at this point ;-). It is big business with agencies doubling your fee and law firms as well (talking ea one adding on to your fee till you are billed out at triple your rate – just saw that with my own eyes) and even firms doubling your rate. So everyone wants to get in on it at some level. The great times for English reviewers where $30 – $35/h was the going rate in big markets (Miami where I started has held steady at $20/h)are over most places and the Northeast corridor is mostly back up to $32/h but I have just worked with people where I got my German rate of $50/h while the Enlgish speakers were hired at $27/h and people on other projects at $28/h. Too many numbers for a lawyer – sorry :-). But someone has to tell it like it is. So yes it is good money. Can be pretty steady work depending on where you are located. It used to be that you got time an a half for over time in most markets but some are trying to pay us flat rate now but that is a diffrent issue and taking this too far here. Many reviewers cannot take actual jobs because they pay too little to service their school debt others cannot find other work. If you are a new grad and can afford to take real jobs and dream of actually practising law I would recommend taking document review projects you can get while applying for the real thing and keeping up with your legal skills, be it in the pro bono field or as as an intern. If you do this for too long and exclusively it becomes very hard to land a real job at some point. Yes, it is not hierarchical and much, much less stressful then real jobs. Many of us have worked in the same places for years, some were even able to buy houses (hard to get a loan on a temp job) and many of my friends are desperately trying to find real work everytime they get laid off prematurely without knowing when the next one comes along. So many are rather bipolar – happy one day and depressed the next and it is hard to plan for anything. Yes, you do have more flexiblity as well – although some have tried to limit that. I do not belive that that will catch on because it is silly and many who do this type of work are mothers with children or other groups who cannot work 14h days in order to meet the 2000h/year billable time requirment for a new associate. Also you actually do get paid – something sole practitioners struggle with (collecting from clients or having enough clients) who also swell our numbers. If you have any questions please feel free to ask we love to help and are a pretty friendly, albeit at times rather crazy, bunch.

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  2. To Julie and Irina who posted comments on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act LinkedIn Group – sorry could not comment on your comments am out of groups to join – evidently there is a limit on LinkedIn.

    Glad you are familiar with the 101 how to books. Was writing this for newcomers to demistify what we do, not to put us down.

    Else we are totally on the same page. I agree it would be great if someone were to consult the only people actually familiar with the case after pouring over all of the documents, us. Somehow I have never experienced that in a review.
    Love what you have to say about hiring people who can bring experience from elsewhere to the table. I worked for a firm which was literally saved by one major foreign client and never considered hiring even a paralegal from that country. It is not just the language barrier but also a matter of cultural understanding. It would make a huge difference to the client and retaining him and the firms have a fine pool of inteligent, well educated and trained attorneys they could choose from but somehow cannot break out of their little box and change the ways they do things. Your law review comment made me laugh. I had one supervisor actually Blue Book my time sheet (I put a period where a comma should have gone and I left 2 spaces instead of one in the description). Likewise they do not wish to consult us about the documents we have reviewed. It is enough to leave comments or as I heard on one of my latest reviews to use translation tools instead of us having to leave notes. Having read the creative German used and knowing the quality of translation tools on plain easy text, I would pay to see those translations
    Even in the normal non document review world it would help to have attorneys with foreign backgrounds on board. I have seen associates proudly tell me how they could barely understand their clients with their high school French but how much fun it was to use it again. Fun yes, but efficient, no.
    It is one of the reasons I started writing these articles and created my group, to give us a voice, exchange ideas and to show that we actually are professionals. I have worked with associates who worked along side us and I have been stuck in a cellar where I was nearly fired when someone called the firm because she had been unable to get a hold of me as my cell phone had no reception in the cellar. She got through to the person in charge of contract attorneys at the firm and I was called the next day by the agency being told never to tell anyone to call (I hadn’t but what if it had been an emergency and since when am I the firms dirty little secret to be kept in a cellar and never to be spoken of in connection with the firm). So I have kind of given up hope that anyone wants to know what I find as long as I am not being seen as more than a mere tool and not an actual attorney who has more to bring to the table than clicking through 1000 documents/day. We learn so much about the case and different fields yet no one seems to see it as a skill transferable to other type of work. Attitudes need to be changed in the firms and the legal world in general – they are dinosaurs and going to go the way of anything too unwilling or unnable to change in response to changing times.It is not just an American problem. I have enountered the same in Japan trying to get an internship when I went to school there (they only wanted my Westlaw passwords and told me that they could do it all on their own. From what they told me they were looking for I would say that this was not even remotely the case). In China I was told that the biggest problem was the difference in mentality in joint ventures Surprise, surprise. Yet every nation is convinced to be better than others. This is perhaps true but when in Rome … or when dealing with Romans try the Roman ways. Eliminates lots of misunderstanding and creates an atmoosphere more condusive to doing and retaining business.The firm I worked for went into total shock about a business practice their German client pulled on them. Not me, I am German. But no one asked me or any of the other German temps working there. I even met an attorney from the client ones by accident and tried to explain to him what he had seen (he was in shock of what the firm had proudly shown him). It takes an open mind to implement globalization at home and is unlikely to be undertaken by more than a few innovative firms. I have seen attitudes changig towards contract attorneys over the past few years as many associates have class mates who lost their jobs who joined our ranks while others still hold stead fast in their believe that we must be damaged goods (what the head of an ageny told me once when telling me how he had to convince clients that this was not so).
    Thanks for your insightful and valuable comments!

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  3. I experienced the same ignorance Andrea. I am a native German speaker and UK qualified. I worked as a contract attorney for a year for a large US firm in London on a German matter when I heard through the grapewine that the firm was thinking of hiring a permanent German and English qualified lawyer to work on the matter. Me and a colleague of mine approached HR to put our applications forward as we believed to tick 10 out of 10 boxes, languages, experience, knowledge of case and firm, etc. However, we were both turned down instantly as they ‘would not consider promoting temp paralegals as a matter of principle’! Instead they ended up with a Irish qualified lawyer, who barely spoke German, never worked on a document review mind you within a Litigation department and who left within three months. Just shows how some of us are totally disregarded and just be put in a box with a stamp on it saying ‘only some kind of temp paralegal and not a real lawyer.’

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  4. Hi Frank,

    Hope you also enjoy my little super coder the invisible temp cartoon. Yes, somehow innovation and flexibility are not words associated with law firms. It is a pretty traditional field. No one wants to be responsible for hiring the wrong person so certain standards were established to fill a McAssociate position and reviewers by sheer definition rarely if ever qualify. Also firms like the prestige of grads from top schools, with the right connections, right age and whatever else may matter to make it all look like they objectively choose the right candidate. We had just someone like that on our answer team who was hired. Yes, Cinderella story for coders. He was good but also from the right family, school, etc. else it appears that some firms may actually promote some people to supervising associated. Again super rare and the stuff legends in our circles are made of. The staff temp hired as litigation associate did not speak a single word of German. I fondly remember a meeting when the attorneys reminded us how important our translations were as they did nor have a single German speaking attorney working for them (well technically they had 20 of us out of a total of200). It is a depressing reality we should talk about. We know the case, we know the language, the different mentalities. Brief we have so much to give it is time we are given something back, that is a chance to show off or knowledge.

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  5. Hey there! After several years of being a legal assistant, I move to a new state and start a new life. I was hoping to land a quick job and then look around and see how the water flowed. I cannot say my hopes were dashed but they went through enough rapids that I was getting bruised and bloody from the semi-sharp edges when I landed a temporary position in document review.
    This project was large enough and had been going on long enough that there were 3 levels of review. Attorneys were handed the first stage of review to see if it relevant (person, place or thing), paralegals were handed the second stage of review (code it till the life was dragged out of it) and for final review, more attorneys looked at the final product to make the final decision. It is good experience. It does get your name out there. It is boring as hell. It also does pay the bills.

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    • This sounds all too familiar, thanks for sharing your experience with us Lisa! Lengthy and mundane precesses. Interestiong point though that attorneys do first level, then paralegals the second level before it goes back to attorneys for a final quality check / thir level. Were those paralegals permanent staff of the law firm conducting the review and qualified? Seems a bit odd to allocate a second stage task to the classic ‘paralegal’ especially if privilege or data protection matters are involved.

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  6. The first level review was a quick run through on responsiveness. If the document did not have the “person, place or thing” it was weeded out as unresponsive from the beginning. It would have to be done later, yes, but the responsive items had to be done as quickly as possible. The paralegals would then go in and code the second level to show how it was responsive and summarize the content of the document. The final review would then go in and redact, set for confidentiality, etc. We were not permanent staff there, rather, there were some that had been on that project for 6 years and that still did not count as permanent staff.

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  7. I believe you. I have been on reviews where people had worked nine and twelve years without hope to ever going permanent. but the paralegals who had performed privilege review on previous occasions were permanent. Sounds like a new model to have paralegals do the grunt work. Yes, it pays the bills and is not overly exciting. It will get you known by agencies and thefirm may hire you again for a later review and you now have review experience. Else it does not give you much transferable experience. Good luck for you’re job search!

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