Unemployed lawyers looking for work in a lousy job market might want to brush up on their Korean or Chinese.
As international business disputes proliferate, law firms are bringing in flocks of attorneys with a flair for languages, although the jobs are almost always temporary.
This spring Apple Inc.'s lawyers brought on dozens of Korean-speaking contract attorneys and document reviewers to help grind through a last-minute document dump from Samsung Electronics Co., the Korean manufacturer with which it is locked in an epic patent battle over smartphones.
In fact, law firms and corporations that used to hire translators fluent in languages such as Japanese, Hebrew or Spanish now figure they can get legal skills in the bargain.
"For legal matters, translators and attorneys with foreign-language skills are probably in the same price range—you get more bang for your buck," said Michael Reichwald, president of Yorkson Legal, a New York agency that supplies law firms and corporations with foreign-language-proficient lawyers and paralegals.
News of the Apple arrangement came from U.S. International Trade Commission filings by Morrison & Foerster LLP and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, which are representing the company in two separate patent infringement investigations before the ITC. The filings contained signed agreements that said the temporary legal help would abide by protective orders concerning the cases.
A spokeswoman for WilmerHale declined to comment. Representatives at Morrison & Foerster didn't respond to requests for comment.
It is unusual for law firms to bring on dozens of contract lawyers at one time, said Eric Elting, director of legal business at TransPerfect Legal Solutions, which supplies lawyers who speak Chinese and Russian, among other languages. Such mass hires typically happen, he said, when law firms have to plow through a lot of documents in a short period of time. Mr. Elting said it appeared that Apple had brought on "so many at once because they felt Samsung was throwing them so much very close to the deadline," for evidentiary hearings this spring.
Such temporary gigs can be a bright spot in an otherwise grim job market for both new and experienced attorneys alike.
"It is a blessing to be able to work and to be able to use my Mandarin Chinese and keep my language skills up," said Paul Dirkmaat, a bilingual document reviewer in Washington, D.C., who graduated from George Washington University Law School in 2010 and has yet to find a permanent job as a lawyer.
Mr. Dirkmaat lived in China for two years, majored in Chinese and worked as a summer associate at the Chinese firm Tiantong & Partners while in law school. Unable to find a legal job after graduation, he delivered pizzas before starting work as a contract lawyer.
He says he has been quoted anything from $45 to $70 an hour for the pay. Bilingual temp attorneys with additional qualifications, such as patent expertise, could get as much $85 to $100 an hour, while regular contract attorneys might pull in anywhere from $20 to $40 an hour.
The rise of the global economy—and the tilt toward Asia—has increased demand for lawyers who are fluent in Asian languages or who can help translate on deals or disputes in emerging economies, such as Brazil or India, said Belina Anderson, a commercial litigator whose practice includes French comparative law and legal translations.
But even the biggest law firms typically can't afford to retain an army of bilingual lawyers just in case litigation pops up in one country or another.
So they often turn to staffing agencies. Fluent temp attorneys and document reviewers can help winnow down mounds of foreign-language material during trial preparation, flagging the relevant files for the firm's senior litigators.
Staffing agencies might bill law firms anywhere from $75 an hour to as much as $150 an hour, depending on the contract lawyer's expertise and other skills, such as knowledge of engineering. While such projects may be extended for some time, few contract attorneys jump from temp work for a law firm into full-time work.
It isn't just patent work driving the boom. Automotive litigation has spurred demand for lawyers and document reviewers who speak Japanese and Korean, legal staffing agencies say.
Another source of work: corporate bribery investigations under the Foreign Corruption Practices Act. "We've been asked to do more on the Russian side for FCPA matters," Mr. Elting said.
Bribery cases also supply most of the bilingual work for Mr. Dirkmaat, the D.C. document reviewer, who sometimes works for TransPerfect.
As most junior lawyers know, document review can be exceedingly tedious. But at least when he reviews Mandarin documents, Mr. Dirkmaat said, "the potential is there to learn new vocabulary, and it helps me stay focused more than it might in English."