What Does a Document Review Attorney Do?    

A common refrain among attorneys and other legal professionals is that if there is something like the dregs of legal work, it is document review.  In the past, say thirty years ago, most business was conducted on paper.  I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect, that paper was fairly expensive.  I suspect this because paper is created from trees and while trees are ostensibly a renewable resource, they are not particularly easy to grow. Moreover, the Western world didn’t get an abundance of paper until, probably, the early to mid 20th Century.  Then, during the 60s and 70s, people became very much aware about the decimation of forests by lumber companies in order to produce, among other things, paper and, well, paper stayed expensive.  I’m talking in relative terms. Obviously, I haven’t conducted any research on this this subject.  I’m speculating.

Mostly, I came up with the above speculation in order to make one point – namely, the cost of paper was a natural buttress against the proliferation of data.  However, since most business is no longer conducted on paper, there is no longer any natural buttress against the overwhelming creation of data.  This is a good thing on a macro level.

On a legal level, the constant creation of data, be it via email, or word-processing, or databases, or any other myriad of places, means that the work that was once solely relegated to a few first-year associates must now be parceled out to dozens of underemployed attorneys.  And it must be parceled out cheaply.

The legal world is very hierarchical.  Everyone has their place, and in this world, document review attorneys (aka contract attorneys) occupy the lowest rung.

What do document review attorneys do?  They review data.

They look at contracts, emails, text messages, and other errata for eight to twelve hours a day.  They sit, let’s say ten to a row, in front of workstations set atop elongated, and often flimsy, desks that are placed in horizontal formation to fill an, often poorly lit, room.  They eat at their desks.  They sip coffee from mugs.  Usually the coffee isn’t that bad.  Neither is the water.  And sometimes, oh sometimes, there are even snacks.

They listen to music, or audiobooks, or podcasts.  Sometimes they surreptiously scribble notes into notepads, because they have real clients, and this job is to keep food on the table and pay student loans.  If the reviewers know each other, and often the long-timers do, they keep a constant, knowing chatter.

“This isn’t so bad.”

“It could be worse.   Remember?  Where you on that project?”

“I was on the so and so project for eighteen months.”

“I remember.  The CFTC kept coming back and asking for more documents.”

Or more quietly, “Why is she watching constantly watching Netflix?”

Or anxiously, “How many documents we have to review an hour?”

Or more anxiously, “I hope we get paid on time this week.”

Or even more anxiously, “I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow, I hope I don’t get blacklisted from this shop.”

And so on, but eventually, “This isn’t so bad.”

They crowd into tiny bathrooms that lack toilet paper.  Sometimes they drink at their desks.  Sometimes they complain about having to take a thirty-minute break, because that will cut into the money they earn. Sometimes the team lead is power hungry.  Often the project manager is a non-attorney who is at the mercy of an overly optimistic sales manager.  Respect is in short supply.  They are on the “review line” after all, meaning they couldn’t cut it in the real legal world.

After three weeks of twelve hours days spent sitting in front of a glowing screen, they become pale and bedraggled and, somewhat, “out of it.”  They are not quite there.  Yet they are ready the next day, ready decide whether a document is relevant – is connected to the case – or irrelevant – not connected to the case.  Sometimes they code for privilege – did a real attorney give advice to the client.  Sometimes not.

The oldest among them remember the good old days.  The days before technology assisted review, where the software helpfully spits out only those documents that it calculated to be potentially relevant.  Or even further back, in the days before most people had internet at home and so did all of their porn viewing and email on their work computers.  In those mythic and halcyon days, a document reviewer could, every so often, stumble across an illicit affair, or a character sheet for a Dungeons and Dragons dwarf warrior.

Not so much now.  Not so much now.

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