Temp Document Reviewer to Permanent Senior eDiscovery Project Manager – A Real Contract Attorney Story

Guest Post: This article was written by one of Shauna’s bespoke résumé clients about his journey to build a career in eDiscovery. It was originally posted at Contract Attorney Central in Nov. 2012 and updated by the client in Aug. 2018.

Original Introduction

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Many of you may have asked yourselves how to get out of the document review and contract attorney arena and how to land a job in the fast growing and exciting field of eDiscovery project management. Lawfool – one of Contract Attorney Central’s keen readers (and active ‘commenter’) managed to make exactly this transition and is now a Permanent Senior eDiscovery Project Manager for one of the big players in the market. He did not forget his document review past though and was so kind to provide this great and insightful autobiographical post which is loaded with helpful tips for every contract attorney who wants to make the move into better and more exciting areas of e-discovery. The first part will cover the all too common struggles which contract attorneys and document reviewers face nowadays and how Lawfool tackled those challenges. Enjoy!

Around May of 2012 I made a decision. I was going to find permanent employment in the eDiscovery industry. I wasn’t sure how I was going to accomplish this, but I knew that it was my best chance of salvaging my young legal career in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Five months later I was hired as a “Senior eDiscovery Project Manager” for a highly regarded eDiscovery vendor. What follows is my story, and the steps I took to end up where I am today. It is my hope that in writing this, I can pierce the veil of fatalism that seems to permeate the industry and offer some hope to those who feel trapped in the quagmire that is the world of contract attorney document review. Failing that, I hope that it’s at least an interesting read.

But first, some background is in order to properly set my story into context. I graduated law school in 2009. Mine was a “lower ranked law school, and that fact combined with the financial collapse that began the previous fall was wreaking havoc on my post-graduation job options. Many of my classmates began their bar prep that summer with no employment prospects to look forward to. Some had offers from good, big firms rescinded; luckier ones just had their start dates pushed back a few months. In the midst of all of this, I somehow managed to not only get a job offer from a fairly respected medium sized IP boutique, but not have it yanked out from under me unceremoniously as the bleakness of the economy continued to set in.

But the economy eventually caught up. I was brought in to the firm as a litigator, but we went through a six-plus month drought in which we simply couldn’t catch a case. My billables went in the tank. In October of 2010, my firm let me go. It was a perfectly understandable business decision on their part, and I harbor no ill-will towards them for what they did. In all fairness, I was actually kept on several months beyond what they really had to, as they held out hope that one of the cases that was floating out in the ether would actually materialize. Alas, none did. C’est la vie.

I was unemployed and had no idea what to do with myself. The difficulty of my situation was compounded by the fact that I had a wife and small child dependent on me, meaning any hardship I fell on was not just my own. It was in the midst of this job search frenzy that I registered with a few of the staffing agencies in the area, hoping for temporary work to tide me over. Less than a week later, I reported for duty to my very first document review project.

I don’t mean to be overly melodramatic here, but document review saved my life, at least in the financial sense. There may have been some way for me to get through those times in another way, but I can’t for the life of me think of what that might have been. Document review afforded me the ability to grind out a legitimately respectable income, even in such trying economic times. I worked on all types of projects: $30 an hour, 40 hours a week, all the way up to $37 an hour, 80 hours a week with time and a half for overtime. I was also incredibly fortunate in another regard; I never went more than a week between projects without work, which in retrospect was a fairly remarkable streak.

And I generally didn’t mind what I was doing. Sure, it was at best, monotonous, but I settled into the rhythm of that work. I had time to read more books than at any other time in my life since college. Of course, I’m talking about audio books here, but who’s checking? The fact of the matter is, doc review, even at its most challenging and complex, never seemed to require more than, oh, say 25% of my brain power at any given time. If I ever had to parse through a truly complex piece of prior art in a large-scale patent infringement lawsuit, I would just pause my “Game of Thrones” audio book,
concentrate for the amount of time it took me to read through and code properly, then get back to Westeros.

But as time went on, the problems with document review became clearer to me. This is a point that I don’t feel the need to linger on, as it has been expertly covered by this very blog for a long time: no benefits, largely thankless work, atrophying “real” legal skills, little perceived respect, long hours, uncomfortable working conditions and “eccentric” attorney co-workers. However, the thing that ate away at me most was the total lack of anything remotely resembling job security. Sure, one can make the argument that there is no such thing as job security in any line of work. Few people have long term binding employment contracts; most are at-will, which theoretically means an employer can let you go without cause at any time. But I analogize the difference between document review and permanent employment to life expectancy: sure, we are all technically dying, however slowly, and could die at a moment’s notice under certain circumstances (permanent employment); but that isn’t the same as having a terminal illness where death is not only certain, but imminent (document review). Every day I went in to work while doing doc review I was terrified at the prospect of getting cut, whatever the reason may be. Maybe the case settled and everyone was being sent home. Maybe the two sides renegotiated the custodian list, resulting in a much smaller data set, allowing the firm/agency to cut its workforce in half. Maybe I was just a few clicks behind everyone else and the agency felt it had to send a message that such inefficiency would not be tolerated. Now, to some degree, these are arguably nothing more than paranoid delusions. Most of the projects I worked roughly went according to “plan.” Some ended prematurely. Others went months beyond what was originally projected. And I was never singled out and let go due to performance issues. But the idea was always there in the back of my mind, and it was maddening.

And then there were the larger issues, beyond just the “tao of me” Industry problems. Inefficiency is a plague in the document review world. This is no secret. People much smarter than I have written about this topic ad nauseam. But for what it was worth, something about the system never felt quite right to me, even as I have noted how grateful I was to have the work. How many times did I need to look over the exact same non-responsive 1,000 page spreadsheet attached to the same non-responsive email chain? How many times had my hundreds of coworkers seen these same documents themselves, over the course of days, weeks, months? How was what we were doing in the client’s best interests? This may sound hokey or trite, but for whatever it is worth, I have always taken the idea of trying to serve the best interests of the client seriously. It’s written into the ethics codes that are supposed to guide our professional conduct. Quite frankly, I am tired of people thinking about attorneys as blood sucking parasites on society, but how was I not perpetuating this stereotype by doing the utterly useless work that I was doing? I could rationalize it to an extent — I was just a tiny cog in an otherwise monstrous machine that I exerted no direct control over. It still didn’t feel right.

There were also the pragmatic concerns. Namely, I had been doing a great deal of reading about predictive coding and advanced analytics in eDiscovery. It sounded fascinating, and if there was any truth to what was being written, it would completely revolutionize the industry. It would also probably result in a reduction of the number of document review contract attorneys for any given matter in which it was employed. The law is notoriously slow to adapt to new technology, and predictive coding has been challenged in a number of cases, but it has also been approved and utilized with great success in many other instances. All of this has led me to believe that, while attorneys may not be facing a full on Skynet attack from computers tomorrow, it seems increasingly likely that the days of employing armies of contract attorneys in a linear document review are numbered.

It was under these circumstances that I knew I needed to get out of the rut I was in. I had been consistently applying for a wide range of other jobs while I was doing document review, but with no success. At the time I was employing the “shotgun” approach. I applied for as many jobs as I could in a dozen different areas/industries, many outside of traditional legal roles. My thought process at the time was that I was being “flexible,” that by not limiting myself to a smaller subset of job opportunities (say, IP law, which I nominally had the most experience in, although it was only about a year and a half), I would have a greater chance of finding work. However, in hindsight, I think this approach backfired. It is my feeling that many prospective employers knew that it wasn’t my true passion to, say, work at the EPA. Where was this reflected on my resume? It wasn’t of course. I needed to change, and so I decided to take the exact opposite approach. Focus all of my time and energy into one particular industry and make myself the most promising candidate in that area. Unfortunately, I had already applied for dozens of IP law jobs and hadn’t gotten so much as an interview. What was the next thing that I was most experienced in?

eDiscovery. Sure, document review is a very small aspect of the EDRM (that would be the “Electronic Discovery Reference Model“), but I figured I could learn about the more broad contours of the industry and try to make that work. This is where my journey really began.

The first thing I did was just try to familiarize myself with the world of eDiscovery beyond just doc review. I ditched the audio books (“A Dance with Dragons” would have to wait) and started listening to some podcasts on iTunes. A simple search in the iTunes store reveals a wide range of free, informative podcasts that tackle many of the issues that arise in eDiscovery, everything from predictive coding, to FRCP 26(f) meet and confer best practices, case law developments and dozens of other important topics. Then I sat down and read “eDiscovery for Dummies.” No, seriously, that’s where I started. It has actually been a surprisingly useful reference.

But I knew that I would need more than just a self-study regiment to truly become an attractive candidate for the jobs I wanted. So I began researching formal education programs that I thought would be beneficial. This eventually led me to the “Georgetown eDiscovery Training Academy“. This was a week long course at the Georgetown Law Center that offered a broad, comprehensive education on eDiscovery. Topics included everything from the nitty-gritty of using forensic tools such as EnCase to drill down into the metadata of a document and analyze its unique MD5 hashing, to open discussions on matters of law and policy with federal district court judges Paul W. Grimm and John M. Facciola. Beyond just the substantive knowledge I gained that week, it was also a tremendous networking opportunity that I took full advantage of. There was a wide range of professionals in attendance, from the head of eDiscovery at UBS (who flew in from Geneva for the week) to, well, me. A lowly contract attorney trying to find his way in a familiar, yet new, world. Overall, it was an incredibly productive week, which is good, because it was a costly one. The program itself was $3000, but I also took a week off from the project I was working on (and my employers at the time were good enough to allow me to do so without letting me go), which resulted in approximately $2000 of lost revenue. Another hit to the credit card…

While the Georgetown program was great as an overall primer and provided an excellent “big picture” look at eDiscovery, the next program I took was purely practical. In July, I spent two days at kCura’s “Relativity Administrator Training” program. This was a crash course on the nuts and bolts of working on the backside of Relativity, a program that most contract attorneys should be intimately familiar with. It was boring. But it was also incredibly informative, and helped me understand the system’s underpinnings in a vital way: from how to create work spaces, to loading documents to running productions and much more.

The last two steps I took were to have a professional resume writer give my crappy old CV an extreme makeover, and to put a dedicated eDiscovery recruiter service to work for me. The first was arguably the more painful of the two, at least financially. My resume at the time was pretty awful looking; the biggest issue was what to do with the twenty some odd doc review gigs I had worked on over the course of the past year and a half. Simply listing them all out, with largely repetitive descriptions (“worked at x firm, reviewed documents for substance and privilege, drafted privilege log entries, zzzz”) wasn’t working. I knew I needed help to fix this in order to make the best impression possible in that tiny window of time in which a hiring associate is looking over my resume (one of a stack of potentially hundreds). A quick Google search will reveal a plethora of resume writing services out there, many that are specifically tailored to attorneys. I sent out emails to several services, telling my story and trying to get their sales pitch for what they could do for me. I eventually went with an independent attorney resume writer named Shauna Bryce. Shauna is a Harvard educated lawyer who has worked on law firm hiring committees and now writes and runs her business around legal career counseling. Although her services are expensive compared to some of the other options out there, I found that the level of personal care and attention to detail that she brought to my resume was invaluable. It made me look like a totally different (and much, much more polished) candidate. Both substantively and stylistically, the difference was striking.

Finally, I found a good eDiscovery recruiter service. The company that I worked with is called TRU Staffing Partners. Terrible name, but it is because of them that I got the job I have today. I worked primarily with Cara Petrie, who manages recruiting in the Washington, D.C. area, and Jared Coseglia, the president of the company. Once the process began, things came together more quickly than I ever could have anticipated. We talked through my resume over the phone and they got a feel for who I was and where I wanted to go. They found what is now my company who was hiring at the time, submitted my resume, and got me an interview with the head of the DC office. That interview went well, and I was then sent up to New York for a follow up interview with the management team there. That, too, went well, and approximately two agonizing weeks later, Cara called and gave me the good news. They were offering me the position of “Senior eDiscovery Project Manager.” Suffice it to say, I was some combination of elated, humbled, relieved, incredulous and truly, truly grateful. I accepted the offer and gave my two week notice for the project I was on (that agency thankfully let me finish out those final two weeks without cutting me as I feared they might).

And that was that. To those who have read the entirety of this opus you, too, have my gratitude for indulging me this long. As I stated at the outset, it is my hope that my story can serve not necessarily as a blue print for others who feel “stuck” on the carousel of document review to slavishly follow, but to dispel any cynical and misguided notions that to enter this line of work is tantamount to a career death sentence. Last time I checked, document review isn’t listed in any of the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s “Inferno,” and accordingly, “abandon all hope ye who enter here” should not be the mantra of those who pass through these doors. There is always hope.