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Discovering your legal path through document review

Doc Review

Recent comments about a quick review of 650,000 emails of a pretty famous person brought on fond memories (and great tweets) about my brief stint as a document review attorney.

It is possible that I missed the conversation, but I do not recall learning about document review until after I graduated from law school while searching for employment at the height of the downturn of the legal economy. Fortunately, I secured a small firm job during this time. Unfortunately, less than three months later, I discovered I did not enjoy the practice of law. And soon after, I abruptly quit.

Friends of friends from law school had connections at big law firms with large document review departments. These friends helped me secure a document review job. Though I needed the money, I was nervous about document review because most of what I heard about it was negative: undesirable work environment, long hours, not valuable legal experience, and unrewarding work were just a few. You can easily find more negative accounts by performing a Google search. I thought I would be tucked away in a dark basement, reviewing stale documents while being over supplied with caffeine, energy drinks, and doughnuts.

My experience, however, was great and nothing like I anticipated.

What exactly is document review? Well, according to my CV, it involves reviewing documents for responsiveness, significance, and privilege. Generally, this review is electronic using various software programs. Some document review assignments involve review of physical documents and legal research. At large law firms with document review departments, work includes group projects and regular staff meetings. Some, may be the most coveted, document review projects allow contract attorneys to telecommute.

The pay structure for document review projects is diverse and ranges from hourly to salary to a flat rate payment upon project completion. Most document review contract jobs do not offer benefits like health insurance or retirement. For me, this was the only downside. Yet, I took the risk and stocked up on vitamin C.

After I left my firm, I became a project attorney. My only focus was electronic document review and I got to work on some pretty high profile cases that I found very interesting. I signed confidentiality agreements that prevent me from sharing details, but just know they were national newsworthy cases involving major corporations. In addition to providing a regular salary and frequent bonus opportunities, the flexibility of the work allowed me to do some necessary soul searching. On breaks, I spent time evaluating what I loved most about my law school experience and the practice of law which ultimately lead to a career in legal education.

Debunking the myth that document review provides no relevant legal experience, and therefore has no lasting impact on a resume, there were many ways my experience would have influenced a traditional legal career had I decided to continue along that path. Before and while engaging in document review projects, we received relevant legal information and industry specific education. For example, I obtained knowledge about the healthcare and auto industries that would have undoubtedly made me a marketable candidate for legal employment in these areas.

Staff attorneys were permanent employees at the firm who earned very nice salaries, bonuses, and received benefits. These attorneys were responsible for managing the various document review projects and teams of project attorneys. This management included providing the aforementioned background information-experiences that add value to a resume. Even some associate attorneys at the firm got their start in document review and moved to other departments. I’m certain their detailed case knowledge along with access to partners and human resources professionals at the firm only helped their chances when doing so.

Developing and maintaining relationships through networking is a key lawyering skill I certainly developed as a project attorney. While some lamented working in a cubicle, I enjoyed the collegiality of the environment. During my six months as a project attorney, I met some great young attorneys with big dreams. Many were founding their now successful law firms while earning steady income. I reconnected with a law school classmate who was working on her first novel during breaks at her cubicle, a guy who was building relationships for his sports management firm, and became friends with a newlywed who is now a successful real estate mogul and an active mom. We often shared our career goals, which included advancing within the firm. We supported and encouraged each other. When someone reached their goal, we had epic going-away celebrations. Because folks were in and out, these celebrations happened often. After six months, we celebrated my win.

Not everyone attends law school to become a lawyer. And even those who do may find that they don’t enjoy the practice of law. I consider myself in the middle of the two. My document review experience provided income, flexibility, and continued legal experience. More important, it connected me to other young attorneys allowing me forge diverse, professional relationships.

Whether you are considering document review as a means to an end or a career, I encourage you to keep an open mind. The benefits are not always obvious.

Renee Allen Renee Nicole Allen is the director of the Academic Success Program at the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville. She received her JD from University of Florida and has been teaching in the area of academic success and bar preparation since 2011.