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Document review attorneys fight for respect

By: Kirsten Klahn, [email protected]//December 19, 2011//

Document review attorneys fight for respect

By: Kirsten Klahn, [email protected]//December 19, 2011//

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Job opportunities increasing with rise in litigation

Steven Schinker reads through materials at his desk at Wausau Tile Inc. Schinker’s work as corporate counsel encompasses a lot of document review, an often misunderstood aspect of legal work. (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

On an average day at the office, Wausau Tile Inc.’s Steven Schinker works with everyone from division managers to the founding father of the company as a “one-person law firm.”

Reviewing legal contracts, developing business opportunities and assessing risk are all part of Schinker’s responsibilities as corporate counsel at the Wausau manufacturer. A majority of what he does falls under the classification of “document review,” an often misunderstood aspect of legal work.

“I don’t think any attorneys are calling themselves document reviewers. It suggests they aren’t licensed and anyone can do it,” Schinker said. “It doesn’t give what we do justice and can be misconstrued by the public and other attorneys.”

Despite its sometime negative connotations, document review work is in demand now more than ever as firms grapple with an increase in litigation that has followed the economic downturn. All of the materials that are part of filing a lawsuit require some review.

“After the recession sunk in, everyone was trying to hold off on litigation,” said Chad Schmidt, director of marketing and communications for Counsel on Call, a professional services company. “In the past years, we’ve seen a surge.”

Document review work’s stigma has a history, said James Martin, managing director of DHR International Inc., an executive search firm.

“(Law firms) used to hire many associates, more than they really needed,” he said, “and used document review to weed out the good lawyers.”

The practice may be outdated, but the perception that document review involves only tedious, mindless review of legal documents persists.

“I would be cautious about document review work on a resume,” said John Mitby, managing partner of Axley Brynelson LLP, Madison. “I can see how people would see document review as willing to settle with a lesser position.”

The work Schinker and other document review lawyers do involves much more than just reading materials, however, he said.

“What we actually do is go through a slew of decisions on a daily basis,” Schinker said. “Document review suggests someone else has done the complex work and takes away the presumption that there wasn’t any complexity in the job function.”

While review is the initial part of his role, Schinker then takes documents to the next step, he said, where he assesses risks and opportunities for the company. As he’s reading, he is analyzing each file looking for things that may not have been covered or parts that may seem one-sided, he said.

The work is a lot like “making a piece of art,” said attorney Seth Goettelman, a solo document review practioner.

Because his review of the document is typically the first time someone is taking a look at the contract, Goettelman said, he has to structure the document and then rewrite it.

“If you’re saying there is nothing to worry about and then overlook something, that is your fault,” he said. “A great paralegal could do half of what I do and a great litigator could probably do the other half.”

For attorneys who can do the variety of work document review encompasses, the money can be good, said Billie Watkins, regional vice president of Robert Half Legal in Chicago. Attorneys employed through her agency can make up to $200,000 doing document review, she said.

Watkins said she has seen an increase in document review opportunities every year for the six years she’s been with the company.

People can sign an agreement for just about anything, Goettelman said, and all of those documents need legal review.

“A few months out of every year I have to turn down work,” he said. “In the legal world, when it rains it pours.”

Lawyers interested in pursuing document review work will have to learn to sell themselves, however, Mitby said, to overcome confusion about what the job entails.

“If you have a lawyer trained with document review and law, that’s all a plus,” he said. “But, that needs to be described on a resume.

“I don’t know what document review is. It doesn’t really mean anything. It just says someone can help with a lot of documents.”

Schinker acknowledged the need for a bit of salesmanship when it comes to reversing the negative document review reputation.

“If you say you only do document review, that suggests you don’t do complex tasks,” he said. “If it’s an accurate assessment of what you truly do, so be it. But clarify your skill set to potential employers.”

For lawyers who are able to make that distinction, the work will be available for years to come, Schinker said.

“It’s a necessary component of our business structure,” he said. “It’s necessary for any business transaction. It’s essential.”


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