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Alternative routes

A fulfilling career doesn’t always have to start with a traditional law firm job.
|Written By Yamri Taddese
Alternative routes

Bay Street law firm jobs may be hard to come by, but there might be other places that will let you keep your foot in the legal door once you’re called to the bar or otherwise “between positions.”

As more and more law firms outsource their document review work, some law grads are making use of their skills at the other end of this business exchange.

It’s no Wolf of Wall Street job, but some new lawyers are finding doing document review is a good way to stay in the industry while creating a bridge to other opportunities.

After finishing her articles in June 2012 at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, University of Toronto law school graduate Bishu Girma found out she wouldn’t be hired back. A mentor at the firm put her in touch with ATD Legal Services PC, which in January was acquired by Deloitte. It takes care of document review for firms that outsource the time-consuming yet key step in the litigation process. “It seemed like an easy transition and something to keep me busy and have income coming in while I looked for a job,” she says.

She joined the company in June 2012. Now, Girma, who combined her JD with an MBA, has been promoted to project managing document reviews — a position she says she enjoys.

Legal support companies that hire lawyers for specific projects on contract basis offer e-discovery, document review, and due diligence services. According to ATD founder and Deloitte partner Shelby Austin, it’s had “huge success” with first-year lawyers. “We think there’s a certain level of energy and earnestness and eagerness that comes with starting out that can be great to work around,” she says.

Document review may be for a lease, litigation, or a supplementary information request from the Competition Bureau. A typical day involves receiving instructions from clients, understanding the requirements, and sifting through information to identify what is and what’s not relevant to the case, Girma explains. “The skills that you learn here is really legal analysis, being able to read a document and understand its principles,” she says. “You also gain experience understanding how the litigation process works because we as reviewers are part of it. Whether it’s a firm or business, you’re reading through their legal brief and the court filings. You’re reading through legal issues and understanding privilege and confidentiality.”

When it comes to hiring decisions, seniority isn’t a priority, Austin notes. “What we’ve found is that it’s the attention to detail that matters more than the year of call for our particular work. We really think it’s how careful they are with the work rather than how senior they are that affects the outcome.”

What about the money? Austin says the company pays young lawyers rates comparable to what they would earn in a law firm although the hours are much friendlier. “If you break down the number of hours a first year works [in a law firm], if they work 2,000 hours and make however much per year, our rates are very competitive to that except they’re not working a zillion hours,” she says. The environment is also attractive. Austin’s team works out of an airy loft on Soho Street in Toronto where staffers wear jeans. There is much to learn for young lawyers working alongside senior colleagues who have practised law for many years, Austin says. “It’s a fantastic training ground.”

According to a 2012 report by U.S.-based RAND Corp., titled “Where the Money Goes: Understanding Litigant Expenditures for Producing Electronic Discovery,” the document review process could eat up to 73 per cent of budgets allocated for producing electronic documents. The report says in recent years, “some critics have claimed that discovery-related expenditures are so far out of control that they are preventing parties from litigating legitimate disputes.”

Ed Burke, senior vice president of document review at Epiq Systems Inc., says the e-discovery stage of litigation has created opportunities for young lawyers.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the way that law is practised. And a lot of that, I think, is a result of electronic information and the growth of what we now call electronic discovery,” he says. “So there’s a new opportunity for lawyers to handle the document review part of the case, which is, in our view, and in the view of most lawyers, a significant part of matter because cases can be won and lost in e-discovery.”

Wendy Cole, director of document review services at Epiq’s Toronto office, says she knows, from seven years of litigation practice, document review experience matters. “Most of what I did as a young litigator was document review,” she says. “That’s kind of, from my perspective, where every litigator starts, so even though these young lawyers are independent contractors and are not in a traditional firm structure, they’re learning the same skills — they’re learning about litigation, learning about litigation strategy, learning about how to make calls on relevance and privilege that’s going to take them through the rest of their careers.”

Cole says there are ways law students can prepare themselves for e-discovery work. “I would say one of the main starting points for law students in trying to understand e-discovery in Canada is to start with the Sedona Canada principles,” she says. Brushing up on the technical side, including predictive coding, wouldn’t hurt either. To their advantage, young lawyers tend to be good with computers, Burke says. “We really look for folks who are highly motivated, who come from good schools, and who can bring a lot of enthusiasm and intelligence to the projects. We love working with young lawyers because they’re enthusiastic.”

Reviewing documents isn’t the only thing law graduates do at Epiq. Lawyers also make up a significant portion of Epiq’s project management team, Burke notes. “Those are folks who will lead the document review process themselves. They have an important role; they’re the key person that’s in contact with outside counsel so they have an important function in shaping the review but also in dealing with our clients,” he says. “There are purely technical opportunities for lawyers but there are also opportunities for them to work on a more significant level on the document review side.”

Epiq opened its Toronto office in fall 2013. In New York, Epiq has already launched a recruiting program with law schools and hopes to expand the initiative to Toronto if it proves successful in the U.S.

Emily Lee, a partner with ZSA Legal Recruitment Ltd., says her company sees more and more ways lawyers can use their training outside of the law firm context. “I do think there are a lot of positions out there, more so lately, that a legal training is helpful for but not necessarily requires you to practise,” she says. “In the past, we’ve seen opportunities like compliance and legislative review, typically on a contract basis, where they just need somebody with a legal training that can come in and review a legislation and write a brief memorandum.”

But young lawyers are also hired with companies that produce legal conferences, Lee says. She says these companies typically prefer lawyers to help them plan and put together continuing professional development events. And for lawyers with a penchant for good prose, legal writing and editing is also an option, says Lee. “Legal publication product development is another area that we see people making the transition into,” she notes, adding companies like Thomson Reuters often look for lawyers to contribute to their content.

A non-traditional start doesn’t have to mean you can’t have a long legal career. Many subcontractors have moved on to start their own practice or join companies as in-house counsel. Girma was offered an in-house position with a company in Oakville, Ont., midway through her ADT contract. She started the job but had to return to Toronto for personal reasons, she explains. Like many young lawyers hired by similar companies, Girma signed on as a contractor for a specific project. Her contract has been renewed several times, she says, and she’s learning skills she’ll need throughout her career.

For students and recent law graduates who might be feeling the crunch in a difficult job market and edging on hopelessness, Girma says: “I just want students to know there are opportunities to stay involved in the legal industry, and document review is one of them. Don’t write off document review because at the end of the day, you’re in touch with legal issues and legal analysis and I just find that very helpful,” she says. “Take time to make a good plan and figure out what your career search is going to look like but also stay active and take projects along the way because it just makes it more noticeable for recruiters that you’re committed to staying in the area and are not taking yourself out of it.”

  • Role of the Licensed Paralegal

    Christopher Harding
    Great article Yamri. Just like to add my two cents with regard to the use of Licensed Paralegals in document review work. Since paralegals in Ontario must be licensed to provide legal services, it makes sense that with the right amount of training they could be called upon to review legal documents. I've been working in IT as a technical writer for over 20 years so it was a natural progression for me to move into the e-Discovery arena. I'm currently a candidate for my CEDS credential with ACEDS.

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