I Want to Unionize Doc Review


QI’m a new lawyer who has been doing contract document review work for about 18 months. While the assignments can be miserable (usually related to whether I can use my iPod or not), there are some that are more bearable than others. Typically, the more bearable projects are run by shops that treat us like humans, professionals even.

The miserable assignments get my goat, the ones that make me check my phone at the front desk, overly restrict billing time, and create working conditions that are unbearable—literally a sweat shop in some airless basement in a warehouse or office building. Believe me, there are working conditions for doc review that rival those of Chinese factories. And yet we keep coming back.

Here’s the deal. I’ve had enough and want to be part of unionizing document reviewers. There are three of us who are behind it, each of us committed to get it done. We understand the risks, are realistic about the goals, and two of use have solid experience as community organizers, which means we know what we are getting into. What do you think? Good idea? Bad idea? Time’s ripe?

AOK, you know Bitter Lawyer was joking about Garvey Harris, otherwise known as the “the man to unionize doc review? But all joking aside, I’m pessimistically mixed on your desire to be the Mother Jones of document review. On the one hand, it would be interesting to see the doc review world disrupted, with potentially legions of underpaid and abused doc review workers getting a fair or better shake. Maybe it’s actually overdue for disruption.

On the other hand, you will be crushed. Crushed if you are more than halfway serious about unionizing. And the problem will be not only the moneyed interests that oppose it (i.e., BigLaw and its minions of doc review agencies) but also fellow capitalist comrades who see doc review merely as a temporary but necessary station in their legal lives, whether true or not. Your capitalist colleagues won’t want to rock any boat that could jeopardize their dreams of making it upstairs.

That’s obviously the double rub of any union effort—the capitalists who oppose it and the worker bees who are scared stiff about losing any potential paid work. But in your case, in the doc review world, things just aren’t that bad. It’s not as if you’re picking cotton or processing chicken gizzards. And I doubt that your gigs are as bad as those infamous “Chinese factories” that you have probably never seen. No iPod on the job? Have to check your phone at the front desk? Yeah, let’s unionize doc review over those issues. I can just see the picket signs.

Bottom line? Try it if one of your life’s goals is to be an heroic failure. Otherwise, keep hacking and coding away and looking for something better.

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

4 Comments

  1. Quadoz

    August 17, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Hmm. interesting idea. It won’t work. My nighttime job is unionized. We need a union. Cops can’t do a job that is nothing BUT liability without the assurance of a contract, indemnification, and knowledge that some dickhead Sgt. or Lt. can’t fire you just because they don’t like the way your hair is cut.

    Bitter got this one correct. Too many lawyers became lawyers for the ability to separate themselves from the heard. Might sound stupid, but it is true. They aspire to become…what the hell ever…the next great PI pimp, partner at some firm, judge….whatever. Unions are meant to protect the interests of people who all have one common goal. I never did doc review, but from the people I’ve talked to that are there, they don’t plan on staying there. Stepping stones do not make for a good union shop.

    It would get your name out there though… As someone not to hire into a firm.

    Just being honest man.

    Quadoz,
    City Cop by Midnight, Rookie Lawyer by Day

  2. Angie

    August 17, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    I want this to work out for you. Really, I do. After college, I had a brief stint as a union organizer. Then I sold out and went to law school, then I REALLY sold out and became a doc reviewer. I have been reviewing for about the same amount of time as you have.

    Document is hard work. I have had to work in basements with flickering halogen lights before. I’ve dealt with standing water and mold covering the bathrooms. I have reviewed for places that ban Internet and cell phone use, as it sounds like you have. I’ve also worked for great firms woth beautiful facilities, dream amenities in break rooms, which allow Internet and don’t mid if you have your phone close and occasionally text. Sometimes, I get time and a half overtime, even though I know it is not required by law in my state.

    Why are some places to work better than others? I’m not sure. I do know that staffing agencies care a lot about their reputation. You’ve been reviewing for almost two years. You should have a pretty good idea of which places allow cell phones and iPods and which don’t by now. You should do your part by discussing this with coworkers, especially newbies. You should be writing reviews of your agencies online so others get the message.

    On the other hand, if you are serious about organizing and you believe you have the needed support (3 people doesn’t seem like enough to me), unionizing document reviewers will take up your entire life. You will be fired immediately and your employer will do something like accuse you of misconduct so you don’t qualify for Unemployment. The main difference between organizing doc reviewers and other types of workers is this: NO ONE who is working as a document review attorney thinks they will be doing this for more than 6 months into the future–unless they are a gunner and those people are not on your side. Anyone else in it to the long haul has too much else going on on the side to risk the financial stability of doc review.

    Keep in mind, too, that it is incredibly easy for big firms to set up doc review shops in Right to Work states for all projects. The logistics of getting people to participate in a union when there are so many out of work lawyers willing to take anything right now would be a nightmare. If you think you have the time, energy, and finances to live without the paycheck after you inevitably get fired, I am not sure why you are doing document review in the first place.

    If you are miserable, and I can tell you are, you may be better off putting your energy into honing your other skills and finding another job. Beleive it or not, people who do document review for almost two years can still get other jobs and set up solo practices. There is not a lot of money out there, but I imagine there is something you are more passionate about that you can do either instead of or in supplement to document review. Also, spread the word about places that you don’t like working.

    But I really hope you or someone like you does take a stand. I really want to see the signed union contract that allows cell phone use during the job and mandates paid stretching breaks. I know that came off sarcastic, but I really do want to see it.

    Good luck, whatever you decide. We all have to stick together as much as we can.

  3. Jay

    June 14, 2013 at 8:07 am

    A document review union can and will be successful. Go for it. Contact the IWW Local in NYC. Google the IWW National Web site. It can be done. Document review work is not going to be temporary for most who are doing it. I was a union organizer. I am a document review lawyer. You are not overstating the problem.

    • IslandTyger

      July 14, 2013 at 10:44 am

      I’m a General Counsel and I support the hell out of this. What scares me about doc review is that I cannot contract out from under employment laws like Title VII. Nor do I want my corporation associated with an ugly overtime lawsuit. The doc review companies I’ve looked at are incompetent with the law and I have no desire to be on the hook for their stupidity. I’m willing to pay more for services that I don’t stay up all night worrying about.

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