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When Florida public defender Darlene Swift and her fianc� had to close more quickly than expected on a house in Vienna, Va., last fall, she found herself in a new city with a mortgage and no job. But instead of searching for full-time work, Swift decided to try legal free-lancing and signed up with an agency that specializes in placing lawyers in temporary jobs. “It’s a really good way to make good money with nice vacation breaks,” Swift says. Now pregnant, Swift plans to continue temp work until she finds a full-time job she can do from home — or one that is flexible enough to provide time for raising a family. “These projects have a start and an end,” says Swift. “It’s really kind of laid back for law — and very different from being in court with someone’s life in your hands.” As a newcomer to the area, Swift fits one of the classic profiles of lawyers doing temp work, especially in the Washington metropolitan area, which is so transient. Local placement agencies say their Rolodexes are dominated by lawyers who have just relocated here, recent law school graduates who haven’t found full-time work, retirees, and women — and some men — who are re-entering the work force after raising families. “Some of our best workers are our older workers. They tend to inspire younger workers,” says Scott Becker, a former associate at D.C.’s Collier Shannon Scott who co-founded Compliance Inc. in 1997 in Rosslyn. Becker says his roster includes retirees, recent graduates, and “lots and lots” of transfers. “The bulk of them are looking for full-time work,” says Becker. “Some are having a hard time finding any job, and some are waiting for a particular job such as a Hill job.” Average pay ranges from $20 to $26 per hour, but many lawyers can earn much more with overtime. “Overtime is what project attorneys live and work for,” Becker says. Typically, temporary lawyers are assigned to review documents for major law firms involved in big deadline-driven projects like mergers undergoing federal antitrust review or preparing a complex case for trial. The days can be long, weekend work is frequent, and the work is often tedious. Says one seasoned lawyer: “This is not the most engaging work I’ve ever done.” TEAMS OF TEMPS In her last project, Swift says, she and 100 other temporary lawyers culled through 1,500 boxes of documents, looking for privileged and other relevant papers. “The best part is there’s a nice, close-knit camaraderie with the people you work with,” she says. And in contrast to a decade ago, temporary lawyers say they get more respect these days, especially in a town like Washington, where law firms are more accustomed to hiring outside help for regulatory reviews. “When I started in 1992, a lot of firms didn’t want temporary lawyers,” says Lange Carter, manager of the D.C. office of StaffWise Legal. “Now most of the work our folks do is document reviews on big litigation cases.” Yvonne Distenfeld, founder of Lawyers on Call Inc., in Rockville, says that free-lance journalists have never suffered from the same stigma as free-lance lawyers. “When I first started, the perception was that these people were somehow damaged goods,” she says. “Over time, this has changed.” Certainly, the demand and pay for free-lance lawyers has risen over the last 10 years. “We have temps who are making close to what they would have made as permanent associates,” says Bryce Arrowood, president and chief executive of LawCorps Legal Staffing, based in the District. His agency, founded here in 1988 with offices in six other cities, offers medical insurance, paid vacations, and even profit sharing to lawyers who work steadily for his firm. One of LawCorps’ regular free-lance lawyers is Michael Gelacak, who was staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1977 to 1985 and was at the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 1990 to 1998, a presidential appointment. For the last four years there, he served as vice chairman. Gelacak, 59, signed up with LawCorps about a year ago. “I don’t want to work in a traditional sense anymore, and I don’t want to retire,” he says. “I use the opportunities with LawCorps to get out of the house. You can work as much or as little as you want.” For example, Gelacak took a three-month break from assignments last year to work on the case of Kemba Smith, a Richmond woman who was seeking a commutation of her prison sentence from former President Bill Clinton. Smith got caught up in drug trafficking through a former boyfriend and never should have been incarcerated, her supporters say. She got the commutation shortly before Christmas. Another retired Hill worker, Earl Rieger, has been taking temporary assignments since early last year with LawCorps. “It is perfect for me because I did not want to get into a situation where I was working 60, 70, or 80 hours a week,” says Rieger, 64. Rieger retired in 1993 after 20 years in Congress, most recently as deputy general counsel on the House Committee for Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs. Now the majority of his assignments involve antitrust cases, where he pulls and reviews documents for companies undergoing review by the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. “I have mostly been working for big law firms, and there is a lot of overtime because they have a deadline to meet. And that’s good because you make more money,” Rieger says. “I am one of the older guys on the team, and I see younger lawyers in their 30s and 40s. I enjoy keeping up with them.” Rieger’s schedule is flexible enough that he was able to take a two-week trip to Paris last summer to celebrate his 35th wedding anniversary. But occasionally, there is too much slack time between assignments, says Rieger, who once spent six weeks idle. “I would like a little more work,” he says. “Sometimes the break is a little too long.” NO SECURITY Many free-lance lawyers, and the people who place them, worry that the combination of a slowing economy and the new Republican administration will result in a slowdown of their bread-and-butter antitrust work. Arrowood, whose LawCorps has survived one recession, says he has noticed a decline in the size and urgency of recent deals that his firm has been tapped to staff. On the other hand, the deal flow “dried up totally” in the recession of the early 1990s, he says. “The flip side is we are seeing an uptick in litigation and bankruptcy, which tend to be a little more recession-proof,” Arrowood says. “Plus, temporaries do OK during recessions because firms are hesitant to hire on a lot of permanent staff.” Andrew Goodman, who has been free-lancing for more than four years, endured a 2 1/2-month period last year when he worked only 150 hours. “That was quite, quite unpleasant,” says Goodman, who fears that the boom in antitrust enforcement under the Clinton administration will wane under President George W. Bush. “There is a lot of uncertainty,” he says. On a more hopeful note, he feels that the boom may have exposed more firms to the value of using contract lawyers. “Some cases are so large-scale that they simply don’t have the people internally to staff it, or the client is not going to pay $150 an hour for associates,” he says. Goodman, 29, is hoping to line up enough work to finish paying off his student loans over the next six months. Then he may head back to school. He turned to temporary work in 1996 after an internship with former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley. “I really still don’t know what I want to do,” he says, adding, “I couldn’t do this if I was supporting a family. It would be very difficult.” Charles Wilson, 64, also worries that he’ll be out of work if antitrust cases dry up. Wilson clerked for former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1960s and then spent more than two decades with a prestigious local firm, which he declines to name. After working at two public interest jobs, he found himself unable to get work, a situation he blames on age discrimination. “Age discrimination is the most invidious” type, says Wilson. He turned to temporary work a year ago and just finished up a four-month project for his former law firm. He’s been idle for a couple of weeks and is hoping for more assignments. “I’m not wealthy. I need an income,” Wilson says. “But even if I was comfortable, I would be doing this or volunteering.” Andrew Jewel, director of the Affiliates placement office in Washington, says there is never enough work to go around in this market. Jewel says that the Washington area has a surfeit of lawyers, partly because of its proximity to 10 law schools and partly because of its traditional attraction to young lawyers eager to work in government. “There are more people looking for work here than there are jobs available,” says Jewel, whose company has offices in 41 cities in the United States and Canada. “It is good for us,” he notes. “We have literally hundreds of lawyers to pull from.” As a result, some lawyers sign up with more than one agency. Swift recently signed with a second placement firm, to double her chances of getting work. “I didn’t work for three weeks in December, and if I had been with an extra agency, I would have had work,” she says. To kill time, Swift visited her parents in Florida and made window treatments for her new home. Now she figures she’s got just enough time to paint the upstairs bathroom before starting in on her next project. “I’ll temp as long as I can because the money is so good,” she says. “It’s an interesting field.” Claudia MacLachlan is a free-lance writer in Washington.

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