A group calling itself United Contract Attorneys gathered on Saturday at The Left Forum, an annual progressive political conference in New York, to voice frustration with the working conditions and wages for lawyers engaged in contract work.
An online flier for the discussion summarizes the talk this way: “In this workshop, you’ll hear organizing contract attorneys speak about their efforts, working conditions, and how these connect to the demise of the American Dream.”
Adding: “Contract attorney wages keep sinking, while partner salaries skyrocket on their workhorse backs. Billed out at 15 times their hourly pay, firms fatten their associate bonuses while contract attorneys live paycheck to paycheck, with no benefits or paid time off, and intermittent work.”
Contract attorneys work for large law firms and corporate law departments at low rates, often through a staffing agency, and usually on discovery related matters such as document review and even translation. They have long been used to keep legal costs down, increasingly so since the recession, and now some contract attorneys are protesting what they describe as poor working conditions and declining wages.
“Working conditions are often no better than their outsourced counterparts’ working abroad, crammed in small workspaces, their cell phones locked away for security, watched by a glorified babysitter, and with little control over their time and schedule,” the flier continued.
The United Contract Attorneys is an unincorporated organization that is attempting to organize contract attorneys to obtain collective bargaining rights. The group has posted its mission and goals on its website ,which includes the right to obtain overtime pay and a benefits package that follows contract attorneys from job to job.
The online flier for their discussion at the Left Forum described the contract attorney community as largely immigrants, minorities, the disabled and older workers with heavy debt loads from law school. Speakers included David Tykulsker, a labor attorney in New Jersey who represents the United Steel Workers and other unions and Alex Franco, a legal fellow at the immigration legal services company UnLocal, Inc., and occasional contract attorney. Valeria Gheorghiu, a multilingual contract attorney and a member of United Contract Attorneys, was listed as the chair.
The event was held at John Jay College for Criminal and Social Justice of The City University of New York.
Some contract attorneys have already sought to air their grievances through the court system. On Friday, for instance, Big Law Business reported on a contract attorney in North Carolina who is suing Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Tower Legal Staffing under the Fair Labor Standards Act for not paying him overtime when he worked more than 40 hours per week. The suit was dismissed in September by a district court judge, but is on appeal in front of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lawyers for Skadden and Tower had argued that the FLSA overtime provision contains an exemption for licensed attorneys engaged in the practice of law, and attorneys for Lola argued the work he performed was so mechanical that it could not be considered the practice of law.
On Sunday, United Contract Attorneys released a statement by email that expressed solidarity with Lola, but steered clear of taking any position on the legal arguments in the case. “As a group of workers organizing to create better rates, conditions and experience for lawyers working in document review, members of the UCA can sympathize with someone like Lola who is struggling with student loan debt in a profession he expected would adequately compensate him for his investment.”
It concluded, “Firms often bill clients much more than they are paying their document review attorneys, and United Contract Attorneys demand proper equitable wages based on our education and experience and on the value we bring to the firms.”
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