The Shame of Document Review

In February of 2001, I joined a team of seven other Staff Attorneys on the 54th floor of the Bell Atlantic Tower. At first I was relieved to no longer be unemployed and happy to be starting a new experience that could potentially launch my professional career as a practicing attorney.  For the first few days I attended orientation sessions on the lower floors and felt like I was being integrated into the firm.  But after that I spent my time on the 54th floor and rarely visited the floors below.  I quickly found out that the rest of the firm looked down upon us (even though we were physically above them) because we did not have the pedigree they had (that is, the Staff Attorneys did not graduate at the top of their class from a top-tier law firm).  For a time, I was fine with this as I thought this job would be temporary.  I knew I would not be getting a lot of legal experience but the pay was a lot higher than I could make at any other firm that was willing to hire me at the time.  Furthermore, the fact that I worked for Dechert seemed to impress a lot of people.

The truth turned out to be different from the image this job seemed to project to the outside world.  Dechert hired Staff Attorneys to perform a function that was below the dignity of the associates who had the correct pedigree. That function was document review.

The document archive on the 54th floor contained hundreds (perhaps thousands) of bankers’ boxes filled with documents.  The firm hired me just before the mainstream application of electronic discovery.  As such, most of the documents I reviewed were actual, physical pieces of paper.  The documents were collected from the paper files, desks and computers in the offices of various high level (or otherwise important to the litigation) employees of the tobacco company the law firm defended.  The plaintiffs requested these documents be produced during the discovery phase of the litigation.  My job was to review the documents to determine if the tobacco company could withhold the documents based upon the attorney-client privilege.

The attorney-client privilege (basically) applies to all communications between an attorney and client.  The purpose of the privilege is to encourage the free communication between an attorney and client, which in theory allows for more effective representation.  The tobacco company could claim a privilege existed if a document involved an attorney in the distribution list of the document or the document related to instructions or advice from an attorney.  These attorneys could be either in-house lawyers managing the day-to-day legal affairs of the company or external attorneys hired for litigation purposes (as was the firm I worked for).

Attorneys were required to determine whether the attorney client privilege applied but the tobacco companies did not want to pay an associate $200 an hour to review documents.  So this work was performed by Staff Attorneys specifically hired to perform this function and no other.  Later, law firms like Dechert would figure out that they could hire contract attorneys to perform this function and pay them even less than staff attorneys.  This would provide level below the Staff Attorneys that they could look down on.

In one sense it was a mistake for me to take this job because although the pay was great and the firm sounded prestigious, it was a dead-end position and effectively ended the possibility of advancement as an attorney within the legal community.  On the other hand, it makes sense that I did take the job.  It was a safe decision.  I would not be challenged and therefore not have a real opportunity for failure.  It was the culmination of my shame journey because by taking this job I had to finally face all the demons in my life that caused me shame.  This would end up being an excruciating eight-year journey.  But I believe in some strange way it was necessary to get to the point where I am now.

Here are the reasons why this job was particularly shaming to me.  First, document review (for me) was the most boring, dehumanizing, depressing activity I could ever have conceived in my life.  I had graduated from law school.  I passed the Pennsylvania bar on my first try. I wrote opinions for a judge and now I was sitting in a cubicle reviewing boxes of documents day after day within a law firm that treated me as if I were a lower form of life and did not really deserve to be there.  Furthermore, I was not expanding or developing my skills as an attorney and therefore becoming less and less marketable the longer I stayed in that position.

Second, Law firms are very hierarchical and uniquely tailored to humiliate someone with a shame-based personality.  Because Dechert was one of the more prestigious law firms in Philadelphia, many attorneys who worked there took a snooty, condescending attitude towards other less prestigious firms.  Within the firm itself many of those at the top of the hierarchy looked down upon the ones below.  Part of this had to do with the legal pedigree but it also had to do with the amount of money they made relative to one another.  There were the partners on the top making millions of dollars every year.  There were the associates making hundreds of thousand every year.  There were paralegals and secretaries making tens of thousands every year. Staff Attorneys (the group I belonged to) were a new development and were wedged somewhere in between the associates and the paralegals.  Associates especially looked down on the staff attorneys not only because the staff attorneys lacked both the pedigree and made less money but also because the associates existed underneath the partners who looked down upon them. The associates naturally wanted to pass this shame along to the next rung. Such is the dynamic of shame.

Meanwhile, if I told someone who did not work at Dechert that I worked at Dechert they would always be very impressed.  I always felt ashamed and tried to down play it by explaining that I was a Staff Attorney performing document review and not really a part of the firm.  For some reason, these people usually would not accept this.  They would tell me I was cutting myself short.  But to me it would be too shameful to take credit for working at a firm that I felt did not really want me as an employee.

I must answer the eight hundred pound elephant of a question.  Why did I not leave this job for another job that would give me legal experience and less misery?  Shame kept me there. I did not feel like I could go out on my own because I did not have any experience.  I wanted someone to take me under their wing.  At the same time I did not leave because the salary was too good but the longer I stayed, the less experience I had and the less likely I would be able to get a job with a different firm who would give me experience.  Ultimately, it was safer to stay there than to leave and I was afraid of change.  In this sense I cannot really blame Dechert.  That firm employed me after all.  For a shame-based person it was not a pleasant place to work.

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