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The Coverage Dilemma

I do my best to personally attend every single hearing for every single client I represent. Every lawyer I respect does the same. Despite my best intentions, however, I admit I’ve had to ask for coverage. I’m sure I’ll have to do it again. Trials sometimes go longer than planned, and judges sometimes set things over my objection. Every judge thinks his or her orders are the most important. When a non-lawyer justice of the peace sets a misdemeanor pretrial opposite a felony jury trial that’s been docketed for five months, you can bet I’ll be sending another lawyer to do that pretrial. I’ll send someone I trust, but it won’t be me.

Yesterday morning, the tables were turned when another lawyer asked me to cover two hearings for him. I told him I could do it; I was there anyway. I didn’t charge him, as I view coverage as a professional courtesy to a colleague and not a source of income. He sent me an email with fairly detailed notes about what was happening in each case.

One hearing went fine, but the other was an absolute disaster. What I knew walking into that disastrous hearing was that he’d filed a motion to continue, which he had attached to his email. He had a trial conflict, as did the prosecutor, and he had already bought plane tickets to go on his holiday vacation after the conflicting trial. He wanted some extra time, and nobody objected to his motion. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? What I walked into was anything but the easy continuance I was expecting.

It turned out the trial conflict he cited in his motion had gone away. I doubt he lied in the motion and expect it had been continued between filing and the hearing I attended, but I wish he would’ve told me. The last day for speedy trial purposes was also very close, and the prosecutor told the judge he could find another prosecutor to try the case for him. According to the judge, the Arizona Supreme Court’s policy is that a previously purchased vacation plane ticket isn’t sufficient cause to continue a trial. The icing on the cake was the client, who claimed his lawyer told him the case “was too hard.” I can’t remember when I’ve been so blind-sided walking into a hearing.

Nevermind, I can. When I first started out, other attorneys would regularly take advantage of my willingness to help out. I was eager to meet lawyers and get into court. Other lawyers were eager to avoid work. Lawyers who had the same tribal indigent defense contract I did would ask me to cover hearings and tell me the hearings were just simple continuances. The clients were pissed no one visited them, judges were mad the defense had blown deadlines, and prosecutors were frustrated that the defense hadn’t returned their calls. One lawyer asked me to cover what she said was “a dismissal.” I appeared and it was a bench trial. She thought the victim wouldn’t show and it would just get dismissed. She thought wrong, and I was like a deer in headlights.

I learned quickly that there are some really horrendous lawyers out there. There are also some ungrateful, entitled ones. Adrian once covered a hearing for one lawyer as a favor. I think they had hearings on the same docket and the other lawyer had to leave. Adrian did the hearing for him. Our email inbox was bombarded every day for weeks with messages from his secretary asking Adrian to cover various hearings for him. No pay, just requested coverage. I think he even gave Adrian’s name to his friends suggesting they have Adrian do all of their hearings as well. Adrian assures me he only said he’d do that one hearing.

You can probably see the coverage dilemma pretty clearly now. I want to help out other lawyers when they need it, and I want to make sure good attorneys are willing to help me out in case I need it. I also want to avoid ambush situations like yesterday. What do I do?

I can’t just refuse to help out other lawyers when they really need it. If I know they’re incompetent or unethical or there’s something else wrong with them, the case, or the situation in general, I say no. I have no problem disappointing people when it’s necessary. What happens when the lawyer asking me for a favor is an unknown though? Do I only help lawyers when I’m familiar with their work? How familiar? Or do I help anyone unless I have reason to believe they suck? Should I help anyone regardless of my opinion of their lawyering so long as they haven’t thrown me into a crappy situation in the past?

Admittedly, I haven’t given this an awful lot of thought. After yesterday, I think I probably should.

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2 Responses to "The Coverage Dilemma"

  1. […] writes about the challenges facing a new criminal defense practice, including, for example, the problems with filling in for other lawyers and the perils of relying on a listserv. His most recent entry focused on the inaccuracies of a TV […]

  2. Lyle says:

    I can’t imagine covering a hearing for someone I didn’t know. Maybe that’s just my take here in rural TN, but I moved here from Chandler, so I don’t think so. I only cover people I’d trust covering for me. Call me hard, but that’s my two cents.

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