A lawsuit filed by J-M Manufacturing Co. against its former law firm, McDermott Will & Emery, has sparked a discussion on the rights and responsibilities of temporary contract attorneys. J-M hired McDermott a few years ago to assist in a whistleblower case and help respond to requests for documents. In their lawsuit, J-M alleges that McDermott used contract attorneys who negligently performed their duties.
Contract attorneys (or temp attorneys), who usually work by the hour, only get paid for hours worked, saving law firms a tremendous amount of money. While law firms typically pay temp attorneys $25 to $125 per hour, they can bill clients double, sometimes triple the amount they pay the contract attorney. It is not uncommon for temp lawyers to work 10 to 12 hours a day, and even work overnight shifts. There have been reports of temp attorneys having to work in sweatshop-like conditions in crowded basements with few breaks. The length of time worked can be inconsistent as a case can settle at any time, leaving the temp attorney no notice that they may not have a job to go to the next morning. The number of temp attorneys has increased in recent years as law firms struggle to meet client needs and provide cost effective service.
While temp work comes with advantages and disadvantages to both the employer and employee, it is important that both parties proceed in this area with eyes wide open. Employers may want to consider the risk of liability a temporary attorney may pose to the firm and whether it is worth taking out malpractice insurance for their temporary lawyers. On a similar note, employers should also think about whether the temp lawyers are being trained properly and guided through their work. Further, employers may want to ensure that the work conditions for temp attorneys meet state and federal standards with respect to health and safety.
Meanwhile, temp attorneys, like every employee, should be aware of their rights. Temp attorneys have many of the same rights as full-time, permanent employees with respect to discrimination and retaliation law, wage and hour law, and workplace safety rules.