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It was a sparkling summer day in 1996, and I was stuck in the windowlessbasement of a prominent Manhattan law firm, basking under the fluorescentglare. Surrounding me were several hundred boxes filled with documents thatI and others were being paid to review for their legal significance. Therewere a dozen of us on this job-all attorneys hired through temporaryemployment agencies. But on a typical afternoon, only about five of the 12would actually be present. Perhaps three would be off at a matinee. Anothermight be attending her dance class. Others would be out shopping. As forthose in attendance, their presence was merely physical. One woman spenthours a day on the phone planning her wedding. Another guy was trying to gethis script made into a film. People took turns reading gossip items from theday’s newspapers to provoke conversation and pass the time. So much talkmade it hard for me to concentrate on my work: I was editing a short storythat I hoped to send off to a few literary magazines by the end of themonth. The fact that we were involved in defending against severalmultimillion-dollar suits existed only in the distant background of ourminds. Of course, each of us had a box of documents at our work space sothat we could keep up appearances in case anyone came down to check on us.But the only one who ever did was a second-year associate with apparently nodesire to monitor us in any meaningful way. “Everything okay down here?” he’d ask on his weekly visit. “Fine,” we’d reply in unison, smiling, and then he was gone. For the next 15minutes we would analyze his every gesture. Did he suspect us? Did he care?Unlikely. Most firms bill out temp lawyers – or “contract attorneys,” as weare called – at about the same rates they bill out their associates. As far asthe law firm is concerned, the more hours a job takes, the more money theymake. We repeated this reasoning aloud, reassuring ourselves. What elseexplains the fact that no one was watching over our work? Our wages alone came to $5,000 a day, and that’s not counting extras likemeals and car service rides home. We’d determined that at our current pace,we would get through all of the 435 boxes in just less than three years. A year earlier, I thought I had given up the practice of law for good. I hadworked as a full-time associate only long enough to pay off my relativelysmall student loans. Then I had quit. Soon afterward, my girlfriend and Ihitchhiked to the Mexican border and began a yearlong journey that broughtus overland to the Panama Canal and back, north into Canada, and eventuallyto New York City, tan, directionless, and broke. I wanted to have a go atwriting fiction, but I knew that it would pay nothing or next to nothing. Afriend from law school recommended that I try working as a temp lawyer. Thenext day I sent my resume off to half a dozen agencies that specialize intemporary legal placement. Since then I’ve found two types of temp work: One is document review, theother is research and writing. The document jobs leave me with more energyto pursue my own writing at night, but the work itself is mind-numbing.Every time I finish a document review I tell myself that the next job isgoing to be more substantive. And yet, even as I make this promise, I knowthat six months later, as I stress over the precise wording of a brief lateinto nighttime and weekend hours, I will long for an anonymous documentreview in some quiet corner of an otherwise bustling law firm. That, essentially, has been the cycle for me over the past three years. Ishift from mundane but stress-free document review jobs to demanding butultimately more satisfying stints writing briefs in the litigationdepartments of major New York law firms, all interspersed with long periodsof voluntary unemployment. It’s a little depressing to put on a tie and jacket after a few months ofleisurely writing and an abundance of unstructured time. But I’ve gottenused to it. I know that the end is in sight from the first minute I walkthrough the door. For me, midtown Manhattan is moneyland. I spend about 20weeks per year practicing law there, earning about $60,000. During the othereight months of the year, I spend my time pursuing other ends. An attorney friend of mine likes to say, “Everyone’s a temp worker thesedays, they just don’t know it.” That’s not quite true. Temp lawyers, ofcourse, aren’t compensated in the same ways as permanent associates. We getno fringe benefits such as 401(k) plans, paid vacation days, and cheaphealth insurance. We’re also paid by the hour and are employed by tempagencies rather than by law firms. Over the past two years I’ve found itfairly easy to find work paying $50 an hour or more. Working 50-hour weeks(a conservative estimate), that amounts to at least $2,500 per week, or anannualized salary of about $125,000. If I have to come in on weekends orwork until midnight, I’ll get a larger paycheck as compensation. A 70-hourweek, for example, pushes the annualized salary up to $175,000. Of course, Idon’t work the whole year.Because I am technically an employee of the temp agency rather than of thefirm, my precise pay depends not only on my credentials and the type of workI am doing, but also on my ability to negotiate with the agency. The agencybills the law firm for my time and then pays me. Agencies don’t want tempsto know how much the firms are paying, and they don’t want the firms to knowhow little the temps receive. Agencies guard these figures carefully andthey promulgate many rules against speaking about “compensation issues”while inside the firm. Thankfully, these rules are routinely ignored and,once a job starts, information flows fairly freely. Over time, and with more knowledge, my negotiating skills have improved. Asa newcomer to temp work, I sometimes received as little as 50 percent ofwhat the firm was paying for me. These days I get more like 80 percent. Inthe past year I’ve made as much as $60 an hour for document review work andas much as $75 an hour for more substantive assignments. Usually the law firms I work for put me to good use. Often I’ve worked onprojects that could never have been completed on time without the use oftemp lawyers. Such jobs consist of sitting in an office or conference roomand steadily making my way through the paper. As in any other officeenvironment, people become friends, eat lunch together, go for coffee, havesex. Working on such an assignment for a month I can bank about 10,000bucks, after taxes. And, I don’t have to care about or get involved with allthe internal politics and power trips that flourish among permanentemployees. Sometimes, though, things don’t go so smoothly. There is one firm inparticular, infamous among temps, that regularly hires contract attorneys todo its major document review work. The attorneys are gathered in a series ofadjacent workrooms on an otherwise unused floor of the building. Theseprojects are lorded over by a paralegal, 6-feet-3-inches and hefty, whowields a large wooden baseball bat. Mr. Baseball Bat paces through theworkrooms in a constant circuit, pounding the fat end of the bat into theopen palm of his opposite hand and barking out his orders: “Keep your headsdown and your eyes busy. I wanna get through 25 boxes in the next twohours.” Not that there was any actual need to rush. I spent most of my time on thatjob waiting for documents to be delivered. Different explanations were givenfor the delays. Transportation problems between the office and thewarehouse. Incompetent photocopiers. Slow paralegals. Whatever the cause, 30of us would sit with no work to do, sometimes for days at a time. Then a fewdozen boxes would arrive. Suddenly an air of panic would set in, mostly atthe prompting of Mr. Baseball Bat. The boxes had to be finished by morning.Everyone was expected to stay late. There would be sushi at 8. Not such a bad way to fund my writing habit. Still, with Mr. Baseball Batinflicting his personality on me at regular intervals, I decided to cutmyself loose from this job after two weeks. Shortly thereafter, I left on atwo-month trip to Egypt, Israel, and Jordan.Temp lawyers have not yet been fully accepted as a reputable part of thebusiness. Despite general agreement that we’re an efficient way to fillshort-term needs, there’s often a desire to keep us out of sight and out ofthe everyday activity of the firm. This desire arises somewhat out ofconfidentiality concerns, but also out of an urge to see temporary employeesas existing on a different level than permanent workers. Temp lawyers have learned to deal with these attitudes. But occasionallythere are temps who still feel they have something to prove. At its worst,this mentality leads to friction, typically between an insecure temp lawyerand an arrogant young associate. The temp lawyer wants to show he’s as goodas the associate; the associate wants to make sure that the temp lawyerunderstands otherwise. It’s the age-old question within law firms: Who hasthe right to shit on whom? I’ve been on more than one job where a partnerhas had to step in and hold a summit meeting. The result is always the same:lots of new gossip in circulation for the rest of the afternoon. Another essential difference between temporary lawyers and full-time lawyersis that many temp lawyers spend much of their time on projects or businessesunrelated to law. Perhaps because they don’t work in an office full-time,they tend to be more casual and relaxed in conversation. Sitting around inconference rooms with other temps over the years, I’ve come to know someinteresting characters. There have been people involved in video production,film, education, and dance. One woman had a dominatrix dungeon business onthe side. She had many tales to tell about the secret desires of middle-agedbusinessmen. Another woman was starting her own law firm using a cell phoneand a fax machine down the hall. Then there are the temp law junkies. These people have made tempwork – especially document review – into a career. Mostly this is because theycan’t find any other work, or at least not work that pays as well for suchlittle effort. They know each other from previous assignments. They havegiven up on the idea of actually doing anything. They will suck a job forall it’s worth, accomplishing the minimum, and then search for anotherassignment just like it. Most firms will weed the junkies out early on, oravoid them altogether by requiring recommendations and interviews. Otherfirms seem to encourage the habit. About a year ago, I ran into one of the guys I’d worked with in thewindowless midtown basement. We were on a subway platform, sitting on thesame bench, waiting for a train. Eighteen months had gone by since I’d leftthe job. This lawyer was one of four who had decided to stay in the basementwith the boxes. The project, he said, had ended just a few weeks before withthe underlying task still incomplete. It had a run, he said, for a total of20 months. He was eager to talk and kept calling me by my name, though I couldn’tremember his. He lowered his voice, leaned toward me, and asked if I knew ofany other big document reviews going on. He’d heard rumors, he said, butnothing he could confirm. I told him I had been concentrating more onwriting briefs-which was true. He looked at me like I was insane. For a minute I thought he might be right. Why not get paid for doing nothingexcept reading magazines and shooting bull? Why not work on my own stuff bynight and then suck juice from the corporate vein by day? Mostly becauseit’s boring. I like writing briefs as long as I don’t have to do it for morethan a few months at a time; I like the chess game aspects of it, the way mybrain is tickled by the process of putting together a well-worded logicalargument. In the end, it comes down to money. How many hours, in other words, I’mwilling to spend in a law firm in exchange for cash. It’s always tempting tostay at a job one more week and get one more paycheck. But as a temp workeryou can “one more week” yourself right through the better part of a year ifyou’re not careful. For me the perfect job lasts about two months, whichusually buys me four months off. After a few weeks away from law, the suitsand starched shirts disappear into the back of my closet and I begin toignore for all practical purposes the fact that I am a lawyer. And so it goes until the cash runs low, the rent comes due, and a new waveof bills arrive. Then I know it’s time to pay another visit to moneyland,trading in my hours for coin. Geoff Berman is a writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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