Robert M. Unterberger, a lawyer and law professor, is founder and president of Philadelphia-area based Legal Writing Success. His company has been featured in Lawyers Weekly and New York Law Journal. His “Write to Win” column appears regularly in the Los Angeles Daily Journal and elsewhere.
A solo Phoenix practitioner has 48 hours to file a response to a temporary restraining order. A small St. Louis law firm finds itself with three complex appellate briefs and appendices due the same day. An in house counsel for a New York trucking company finds herself crushed by a mass of environmental pleadings. In each case the solution was an e-mail to an online litigation support company.
More than 500 Internet companies shut down or declared bankruptcy in 2001, according to Webmergers.com. While many e-commerce businesses struggle, online companies that provide research, writing and editing, among other services, to lawyers, law firms and legal departments are thriving. And at a time when recent events have sent tremors of uncertainty throughout the legal profession, one bright spot is web-based temporary lawyers who are available on short notice to take on assignments.
Boom Times For Temp Lawyers
The legal profession no longer attaches much stigma to temporary, or contract, lawyer work. Acceptance of temporary lawyers grew tremendously in the 1990s for a number of reasons. First, economic growth fueled demand among law firms for experienced lawyers. This need to get lawyers “on board” quickly compelled many firms to consider employing lawyers on a contract basis. Second, law firms that were hurt in earlier recessions – most recently in the early 1990s – were careful not to overstaff, and are amenable to hiring temporary lawyers to handle matters. Finally, law firm clients – mindful of the bottom line even in good times – recommended their own counsel use temporary lawyers as a cost-effective solution to control fees.
What has changed in these unsettled times is how lawyers find the temporary help they need. Traditionally, lawyers relied upon “bricks and mortar” temp agencies to provide them with lists of potentially available temporary lawyers. The lawyer, agency and temporary lawyer then engaged in a sometimes lengthy process including screening, recommendations, writing samples, evaluations and compensation. This time-consuming equation for obtaining temporary legal help – more suited to hiring permanent employees – arguably isn’t truly effective in an unsettled, recessionary economy where assignments need to be completed now.
Today, an increasing number of lawyers and law firms are turning to the web – a resource that did not exist a few years ago – to find experienced, credentialed and competent temporary lawyers. Web-based temporary lawyers can often be put to work more quickly than can their counterparts from traditional temp agencies. In many cases web-based temporary lawyers can begin working on projects the same day they are assigned.
The Next Big Thing
The use of web-based temporary lawyers demonstrates a market shift in the way lawyers use outsourced legal research and writing. The next big thing, it turns out, is 24/7 research, writing and editing that is readily accessible over the Internet. Lawyers have quickly embraced web-based temporary lawyering thanks to the wireless mobile revolution, where lawyers don’t think twice about sending assignments over the web in order to make a deadline. Indeed, lawyers have sent the outline of a motion from a laptop in their hotel room to a temporary lawyer knowing that the final draft will be ready for filing in court the next day.
Typically, online litigation support companies receive assignments by e-mail or phone. Assignments are inputted into a database that includes the client’s id, contact information, all lawyers involved in the case, the identities of the parties, relevant facts, documents and case law, the assignment’s format, the client’s strategy, and a timetable for all drafts, including the filing deadline. The responsible temporary attorney generally has experience in the type of matter assigned.
The quality of contract lawyers working for online litigation support companies is generally high. The pool often includes lawyers with big firm experience, including law review, clerkship and teaching. Their areas of expertise run the gamut, from insurance coverage to bankruptcy, from class actions to corporate matters. What’s more, lawyers working for online litigation support companies reside around the country. The motion filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas may have been drafted by an attorney in Sacramento. Does location matter? Not in an era of e-mail, faxes, Westlaw and Lexis.
Additionally, many highly qualified lawyers, suddenly displaced by the recession, have found work as web-based temporary lawyers.
What To Look For
Generally, there are seven areas of concern lawyers have before they choose an online litigation support company:
Conflicts . Before an assignment is accepted, make sure the company performs a conflict check. Since assignments come into online litigation support companies from across the country – not just Philadelphia – from small towns and big cities, conflicts are rare. Nonetheless, the company should have a conflicts check system in place.
Confidentiality . Make sure the company has a written policy that it will not disclose – without your permission – any confidential information gained through contact with your work product. Before submitting an assignment you may want to redact information and take steps to make sure that confidential information is not inadvertently disclosed.
Privacy . Make sure the company has a written policy that the identities of customers will be kept confidential and that personally identifiable information, such as e-mail and business addresses, phone and fax numbers, and billing information, will not be disclosed without your permission.
Liability . Ask whether the company and/or its temporary lawyers carry liability insurance.
Viruses . Make sure the company routinely checks for viruses and exercises caution in sending and receiving attachments by e-mail. Ask if the company gives you the option of receiving drafts – no matter how long – by fax.
Disputes . Make sure the company sets forth a clear policy on a disputes and a forum for their resolution should disagreements.
Reputation . Ask the company for references, samples of its staff’s work product and resumes of its lawyers. If the company hesitates…move on.
While legal research and writing constitutes the bulk of services provided by online litigation support companies, they also may provide such services as editing, rewriting and consulting. One notable trend – given the specter of associate layoffs – is savvy associates consulting with web-based temporary attorneys to develop their writing skills and, hopefully, gain an edge on fellow associates at evaluation time. These associates don’t disclose client and law firm confidences or discuss the substance of pending assignments, rather they seek the mentoring that their firms are failing to provide. Associates seek seasoned lawyers through the web to mentor them at a time when their partners have less time to assist them.
How To Find Help
Many online litigation support companies can be found simply by typing a few simple phrases into your favorite search engine (e.g., legal research, legal writing). The sizes of these companies vary from sole practitioners with simple web pages to established legal research and writing companies with sophisticated web sites. One lawyer remarked that her five-year-old son found the company she regularly uses while he was surfing the web.
Web-based temporary lawyering is successful because in this erratic economy lawyers, law firms and legal departments cannot reasonably be expected to have a handle on their staffing needs. Lessons from the legal profession’s recent past show that markets do
cycle back, and this should be a time for guarded optimism. In the meantime, e-commerce has stepped in with a timely and professional solution. Web- based support services offer experienced and deadline-oriented lawyers to research, write and edit, often on a 24/7 basis. That’s a plan for weathering the economic storm.