Monday, August 9, 2010

Per Diem and Part-time Jobs for Part-time Pay: Glorified by the Media

Well, I take on per diem work. I think lots of solos do.  When you don't have enough of your own clients to keep you busy, then you have to do what you have to do--even if that's making a court appearance for $50.  I have been paid more, but that's the going rate.  It sucks, but you have to look at the long term picture and at the end of a slow month, $500 means too much to let it go.

I was in court today on a per diem matter in Civil Court. I checked the calendar and noted that my case was 188 on the calendar.  All I had to do was yell out, "Plaintiff, application!"  Easy schmeezy, right?  This is what the calendar call sounded like (I actually wrote it down, because I couldn't believe what I was hearing):
one huded one personal touch and dandho
one huded too so non jury personal touch
one huded tree rental surrogates altight
one huded foh wess end buy de parsippany.
She's still warm.  Can you go to a compliance
conference for me on Friday?  Lemme know
what happens.

Yah, he sounded liked he had a whole keg of beer and went to work to call the calendar call.  Now, if he wasn't actually drunk--THAT is job security.  You are hired to call out the calendar and little else, you somehow are no longer able to to do the one task you were hired to do and you still get to do it.  Thank God that I noted the number and the numbers were somewhat discernible.  I heard "one huded aay ate" and stood quickly to get my adjournment and leave.  He said something to me, when I asked for the date.  I just repeated myself and skedaddled.  I laughed all the way to my office.  That's the nice side of per diem work.

So, just to summarize, you are a warm body sent to court to get adjournments and such and you're paid.  I could be a chimp with a pipe in plaid pants and accomplish the task.  Essentially, I'm doing the work that any first year associate in a small to mid-sized firm SHOULD be doing to learn the ins and outs of court, but the firms that hire me are too cheap to take someone on full-time. It's outsourcing on a small scale.

Then I ran into this delightful article about per diem work, which doesn't mention it by name.  Instead, the article is entitled: Lawyers seek more work-life balance; firms accommodate them
So nice of them to do that.  But you and I and the chimp that wants to go to court instead of me, knows better.  But here are the high points (with italics):

By day, Katie Birmingham is all about her inner foodie, as chef-owner of  her Atlanta  eatery, Noon Midtown. By night, Birmingham's a barrister for Counsel on Call, a law firm that gives its network of lawyers the choice to take on as much or as little legal work as desired.  If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck--it's per diem work.  Call it like it is.

Though she loves the law and has practiced since 2003, Birmingham loves cooking just as much, and left the big Atlanta firm Kilpatrick Stockton in 2008 to have the flexibility to do both. Hmmm... in the midst of the recession, she "left" KS to open a restaurant and be a per diem attorney.

"Cooking is such a strong passion for me; it always has been," she said. The flexible scheduling with Counsel on Call "gives you a little bit more control over your time and, as a consequence, more control of your life."  I agree.  This is a perk.  But I wish my time, resulted in more money.  I doubt Atlanta pays more.
Now onto the part of the article that talks about screwing attorneys (even partners) out of money under the guise of work-life balance.

"The legal profession right now is changing so much. First, there are fewer jobs now in the industry. Second, you have a squeeze on rates, which makes it hard to bill a premium on associates," said Stephen M. Paskoff, an attorney, founder and president of ELI, an Atlanta-based employer consulting firm that specializes in harassment, wage and hour compliance and other workplace training. "I do think there's a greater appreciation for diversity."

Part of that diversity appreciation comes from a realization by law firms they risk losing good lawyers by holding on to rigid standards. "For today's people coming fresh out of law school, it's not at all unusual for them to talk to you about their desire to have balance of life," said Roger Quillen, chairman and managing partner of Fisher & Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm based in Atlanta.  

Andria Lure Ryan, a partner at Fisher & Phillips, works on a reduced schedule. As a single mom, she's juggling her kids' wrestling, softball and volleyball practices and games and other activities. She's wired, though, so whether she's in the office or at her youngest daughter's softball game, she's never more than a iPhone "beep" away. "If I’m not responsive to my clients when they need me to be, then I’m going to lose my clients."

There is a trade-off:
Ryan earns roughly 25 percent less than her peer partners who do not work a reduced schedule, but she said it's worth it.

With more lawyers seeking time do engage in activities beyond familial obligations, more firms are formalizing leave policies tailored for that.

"A couple of generations ago, it was unheard of for you to think you could be an effective lawyer and work reduced hours. It's no longer," said Vanessa E. Goggans, human resources partner at Morris, Manning Martin in Atlanta. Reduce your hours and your pay, or join the bread line.

Am I the only one that sees this as a way of reducing salaries?  Am I the only one who sees per diem as a means of outsourcing your grunt work as an alternative to hiring a first year associate?  Tell me if I'm wrong, please!  I want to think that law firms are doing this for the benefit of associates, but I somehow doubt that work-life balance is on their balance sheets.


  1. You generally can't live off per diem work. Also I think you have a typo in this entry, since you wrote the appearance is $50, I'm sure you meant $500. $500 isn't that bad actually for the work required. I suppose if I could get 5 minimum a month I'd at least feel like I'm getting somewhere.

  2. I meant.. If you do 10 per diem appearances... you can get $50. Of course, the price varies... but just saying.

  3. I'm not really scared of reduced salaries. It could actually be a good sign of things to come with respect to the outrageous 160k ENTRY level biglaw salaries. The current situation is not sustainable. Salaries will be cut in favor of having 2 attorneys for the price of 1.5. This means less unemployment. It is a natural response in a competitive environment, simple supply/demand economics. A competitive system cannot ride on name recognition and "prestige" forever, perception only lasts until results alter perception.

    Cutting salaries may be the sign that unemployment will go down although pay won't be what most imagined a $150k degree would get them.

  4. It depends. My actual frustration with a legal job is that it used to be an all or nothing job. I hated the all consuming nature of the work, I had no control over my time. I didnt want to be in the office 5 days per week. I welcome part time work, consultancy per diem, work, piecework etc, BUT I am in the financial situation to be able to do this, I appreciate that many young attys are not and cannot pay the loans on piecemeal work.

  5. Angel, an older attorney in this state is working as a janitor at the local state school. Yes, as a JANITOR!! (Luckily for him, he is in his fifties and he did not take out a mortgage to go to law school.)

    A few months ago, a friend introduced me to one of his co-workers. The guy drives a shuttle van. He went to American U. and passed the DC and Utah bar exams. He left the field when he was in his late 40s, because "I just couldn't make it as an attorney. I wasn't making enough money."

  6. Angel,

    I wanted to ask a question in regards to legal assistants and legal secretaries. I've always wanted to go to law school and be an attorney, but at least for the time being I know that's not a possibility. Only schools I could get into were 3rd/4th tier, damn you LSAT, lol. I've worked in law offices before, several actually (the last one was only 2 attorneys and I really didn't do anything - temp job for a paralegal on maternity leave) But in my search for a job I had applied to this one law firm for some kind of image clerk or something to that effect and got a call to interview for a legal secretary position instead. Interview went really well. Of all the interviews I have had, this was by far the one I felt the best about. Today the lady called me back to interview also for the legal assistant position with the other legal assistants in the one office (the legal secretary is a step down from the legal assistant position the way they were explained to me) I guess I just wanted to get a little outside advice, other than my family and friends. I am currently working for a pulbic library as an admin assistant (just started last week) and I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth because I am grateful to be working again, but I can already tell this isn't where I want to be. The legal secretary and even legal assistant position def will pay more. The firm is very well known in my state and is actually the oldest firm in the state. I'm really just typing out loud here and thought you all could give a little advice or insight. I meet with the legal assistants tomorrow.

  7. Angel,

    I have an undergrad in chem. engr. and a master's in chemistry. I want to go to Franklin Pierce for patent law but I'm worried about 3T status and the faltering economy. On the other hand I hear that patent attorneys are not having all that much trouble. Do you have any insight from inside the legal profession?

  8. Amy, most of the paras and legal secretaries I know think their jobs are boring as well. I don't think that's exclusive to any one job, I think all of them are. I suggest you go with the job that has the most room for upward growth. In a law firm, you will never be the lawyer--but maybe the office manager. What about the head of Library Administration? I dunno. That's how I would make my decision. I actually worked in many libraries in my life.. law and public. It was really nice. You may grow to love it.
    I am not a Patent Lawyer, but I have a dear friend that is. By all counts, he is a success story. He's weathered through 8 years at a large firm. However, he feels the pressure of being pushed out. They increase his hourly rate every year, regardless of the market--which scares clients away from him and into the arms of younger associates. Futhermore, he said the work is mind numbingly boring. What used to take him 6 hours is done in an hour flat. He wishes he could do something more interesting. But, if he were speaking to you, I think he would say stay away. He went to a T14, btw.

  9. I've actually thought about law office administration. I really do like the whole administrative side of things. As for upward growth with the library, I really don't think there is any, at least as far as I can tell. I'm the admin assistant for the Library Director and the Director is chosen by the Board of Directors. There really isn't much in the way of administration at the library, at least here where I am. There isn't an office manager, most if not all of the managing is handled by the Director.

    I'll just have to see how the second interview goes tomorrow. I know I'll never be a lawyer, unless I retake the lsat and somehow get into my state school (where I really wanna go) but that's probably ways down the road if ever. Hey stranger things have happened.

  10. Alton- patent attorney here BSEE/ MSEE. Get experience in your field first and foremost. DO NOT and I repeat DO NOT go straight to law school. The most important thing you can do is to gain experience in the relevant industry. I went to a TTT and have mediocre grades but I have a job as a patent attorney solely because of my combined 5 years of experience in the semiconductor field.

    My further suggestion would be to check out being a patent *agent* first, and see if you even want to go to law school later. If you do decide to go to law school, go at night, and keep gaining experience during the day.

  11. If a majority of the complaints are from third and fourth tier students I wonder what great jobs were available to them before the downturn? Didn't this stratum always have to hustle? I know that I did. I got through a fourth tier school busting ass as a server in a trendy NYC restaurant (ironically frequented by patronizing, douchebag attorneys) and as soon as I graduated got the hell out of NYC. Best move that I ever made and have been practicing the type of law that I always intended to. Then again, I always knew exactly what I was interested in and why I wanted to be a lawyer.

  12. Angel and Evren, thanks for your advice!

    I am currently working as a chemist at NIST, by the time I enter law school I will have about a year and a half of experience. I plan on having patent agent status when I enter. Franklin Pierce doesn't have a part-time or evening program but I want to go there because I'm pretty sure I will get significant money. There's a reasonable chance I can get my J.D. with nearly zero debt. I'm not taking on huge debt in this econ, which is what I'd have to do to go to GWU (best IP school I have a shot at).

  13. Ha. My buddy went there. Just beware of the bait and switch scholarships to TTTs and below. The scholarship needs to have no contingencies.. if they say that you have to be in the top half of the class, or whatever, you may lose it. 1 in 2 chance you will lose it, actually. So make sure the scholarship is no strings attached.

  14. Even the TTTs don't seen to want to give more than $20k a year to most people. That's about all I was being offered at the lower ranked schools. I know some people get full scholarships, but I think those people have to pretty much get into Stanford.

    Maybe I'm wrong though. How have other people fared with scholarships?



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