Studying a “weird little subculture” in the workplace

In his new book, Cheaper By the Hour, Robert A. Brooks recalls his first-hand experiences of being a temporary attorneys and the mind-numbingly repetitive task of document review.

When I began working as a temporary attorney in Washington, D.C., I frankly was excited to be making $25 or $30 per hour (plus time-and-a-half for overtime), although I had no idea what I’d be doing. I had spent the previous couple of years on a university fellowship, working toward my doctorate in Sociology and surviving on the $12,500 annual stipend plus student loans to fill in the gaps. Although I didn’t want to return to a law career, I was happy that I’d found a way to finance my dissertation – do a project or two, write a chapter, do another project or two . . . 

My excitement turned to surprise and eventually dismay when I discovered the kind of work we were asked to do, and where we were asked to do it. My first project was located in a rotting, condemned office building in Virginia, and the work involved something called “document review” – reading documents on a computer screen and then “coding” them by fitting them into one of several possible pre-determined categories. I worked on this large litigation project for about six months and then took some time off to do some research and writing. And just as planned, I started another document review project and then alternated temping with writing, for several years. 

The work (as detailed in Cheaper by the Hour) was mind-numbingly repetitive but I saw it as a necessary evil – the best-paying work I could get while giving me some flexibility to finish my dissertation. However, it’s tough for me to take a purely outcome-oriented approach to anything, even if it’s only temporary. I need to find some sort of meaning in what I do.

One night while taking a taxi home from a very long day on my second project, I had an “aha” moment. I thought: “Temporary attorney work is such a weird little subculture. Someone ought to do a study on it.” I stopped myself and laughed out loud a little bit, ignoring the quizzical look in the rear view mirror from the cab driver. I said to myself (as I later wrote down): “Boy, I must be tired. I’m getting a Ph.D. in Sociology and I’ve done research and teaching in the Sociology of Work. I’m going to do a study on it.” I spent the rest of the cab ride sketching out a plan.

I was happy to discover that no one had done a similar study. In fact, even in the legal press the “real world” of document review was almost never revealed. I began to take notes in earnest and to interview my fellow temporary attorneys. While the work didn’t change (it was tedious and insecure, and I didn’t feel like I was working as a lawyer), I was spurred and excited by the notion that I could someday publish a study of this strange little workplace culture I’d found.

Now that I have, I’m curious about the reactions temporary attorneys as well those who hire and work with them will have to Cheaper By the Hour. I have immense respect for document review attorneys, many of whom are able to maintain their concentration and their professional work ethic while performing rote, assembly-line style work. I hope that law firms and corporations appreciate how miserable this work can be, and then take steps to ameliorate the objective and subjective qualities that make it so. Document review work – and the workers who do it – has been mostly hidden, and for too long. Let’s have some public conversations about it.

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