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No one goes to law school to become a doc review attorney, but plenty of lawyers end up with a doc review gig at some point, whether they're BigLaw associates or low-paid contract workers. And while document review might not be the most enviable task, it does constitute the practice of law. That's the ruling in a recent lawsuit which found that a contract doc review attorney at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan isn't entitled to overtime pay because doc review required legal judgment.
Consider it a double-edged sword. Yeah, doc review is terrible work. But at least it's terrible work reserved for attorneys.
During the two short months that William Henig worked as a contract attorney for Quinn Emanuel, he reviewed almost 13,000 documents. The job paid $35 an hour and Henig worked just under 300 hours in those two months.
After his doc review job ended, Henig filed a putative class action, alleging that he and other attorneys were entitled to overtime pay. "Legal practice" is exempt from the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standard Act and New York law, but Henig argued that doc review was so rote that it did not constitute the practice of law.
Judge Ronnie Abrams of the Southern District of New York didn't agree, however. His opinion begins with these not-so-inspiring words:
The history of law, Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, "is the history of the moral development of the race." But many practicing lawyers -- especially junior attorneys at large law firms - know that their jobs too often have less to do with the development of the human race or the law than with tasks that are necessarily repetitive in nature, modest in intellectual scope, and banal in character.
Judge Abrams continued, explaining that "not all [doc review] is law at its grandest," an understatement if ever there was one, "but all of it is the practice of law."
Attorneys have often had a love-hate relationship with document review. Yes, it is horrible work. But it is our horrible work. So long as there are laws against unlicensed practice and heaps of discovery to grind through, attorneys can be sure that there's some work to fall back on in lean times.
Had the ruling come out otherwise, you can be sure that those doc review jobs would soon be farmed out to the cheapest labor available and not to lawyers.
Judge Abrams' decision maintains that status quo. But it also means that Henig and other doc review lawyers won't be getting the pay they think they deserve, even if it keeps the doc review market closed to non-lawyers for the foreseeable future.
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