Marco Dattini spends his days sifting through e-mails, pleadings, corporate documents and memos, on the lookout for red flags.
The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lawyer works at some of Miami's largest law firms, but he's not a partner, associate or of counsel. He's a hired gun in a suit, part of a growing South Florida contingent of contract attorneys.
Contract or temporary attorneys are hired by firms large and small for jobs as short as a day or as long as six months. Their pay is significantly lower than full-time attorneys -- typically $20 to $35 an hour in South Florida -- and they receive no benefits.
Their work is usually limited to document review -- reading through hundreds, if not thousands, of e-mails or papers in discovery and litigation preparation. But some contract attorneys handle more substantive work, such as preparing for depositions, drafting contracts and attending hearings.
The region's firms have increasingly turned to contract attorneys as economic times make them more cautious about hiring. Contract attorneys also make sense when law firms are gearing up for a big case that could last days or months, with the exact timing uncertain.
South Florida, with relatively lower rates, is fast becoming a document review center, say industry employment agencies. Rates in New York and Washington run more like $50 an hour. In the Daily Business Review's 2010 managing partners survey, 23 percent of managing partners reported using them. (The question was not asked in previous years.)
The same trend is being seen with in-house lawyers. Corporations like Office Depot and Pediatrix, and real estate companies are increasingly turning to contract attorneys rather than hiring lawyers outright, sources say.
"Corporations are doing a substantial amount of substantive legal work on a contract basis in South Florida," said Jonathan Broder of Strategic Professional Staffing in Aventura. He noted 200 attorneys work at a Miramar document review center run by Huron Consulting Group, one of six such centers the company operates around the country.
For the lawyers, contract work might not be that thrilling, but it can be a stopgap measure to tide them over after a layoff or if they are right out of law school.
"There is a definite demand for contract attorneys these days," said Sharon Thompson, owner of Thompson Legal Services of Miami. "There's a demand from the law firm and a demand from the attorney. I have a steady stream of applicants."
Dattini is a prime example. After leaving his job heading the legal department of a telecommunications company in April 2009, the 37-year-old University of Miami law school graduate turned to contract work. He has worked for some of the largest law firms in Miami-Dade and Broward, which he declines to name, doing document review for about $20 an hour.
The tricky part of contract work is juggling jobs, he said.
"If you get a six-month project, but you're in the middle of a three-week project, then you're, like, oops," he said. "You can't leave in the middle, or your name will be mud. You're put in an awkward situation."
Dattini said nearly every contract lawyer is looking for full-time work, sending out résumés in between jobs.
"It's just a stopgap measure, just to have money coming in," he said. "There is a passive understanding that people ultimately can't do this indefinitely."
Still, plenty of attorneys are willing to do contract work, said Thompson, who says she gets 50 resumes a month. Applicants range from newly minted lawyers to seasoned attorneys practicing for more than 30 years.
"They are really happy to get their foot in the door because sometimes these opportunities become permanent," she said.
Thompson said she has seen the pay for contract attorneys dip as law as $10 an hour.
"It's unfortunate for seasoned attorneys because it's a lower rate than they are used to making, but it is consistent," she said.
Some firms don't like to advertise the fact that they use contract attorneys, but Gregory Young, partner-in-charge of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge's West Palm Beach office, said the firm has used contract attorneys for several large intellectual property cases.
"They're not engaged at strategic levels. It's more at levels that involve heavy documentation with some amount of specialization," he said.
"Law firms have really reviewed and taken steps to control expenses, and that includes the number of attorneys that are employed," Young added. "Rather than hire a lateral to take on incremental business activity, we might bring on a contract person."
Proskauer Rose also has turned to contract attorneys to reduce costs. The firm has used two or three over the last year in its Boca Raton office for document review and general litigation, said David Pratt, who heads the office.
"Like most firms, we're thinking long and hard before making full-time hires," he said. "Fortunately we have had a very successful and busy year, but before we make a full-time commitment we want to make sure the work is there. This is a good way for both sides -- the lawyer and the firm -- to dance a little bit before we tie the knot."