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Managing Caseload

Most lawyers plan for when times are bad. We tend to only joke about what we’d do with an enormous caseload if times got great. I’m certainly guilty of making off-handed comments about too much work being a good problem to have, but in reality, when too much work really does become a problem, it’s probably worse than the alternative.

Before I had any real experience, I looked all over the place for guidance about caseload. I spoke with public defenders and met some who had 30 open felony cases. I met some with 60. Several public defenders who handled misdemeanors as well as felonies told me they typically had over 100 open cases at any given time. Relying to some extent on the stereotype of the overworked public defender but mostly figuring they had experience and paralegals and secretaries I didn’t, I decided the absolute max for me should be a fraction of the minimum for them.

I also spoke with lawyers who built their practices around court-appointed clients and only occasionally took a private client. For the most part, they blew the public defenders away as far as numbers go. One lady bragged to me about having 400 appointments in one year alone, some of which were capital cases. I was extremely disturbed, and believe it or not, that isn’t the highest number I’ve heard. A month or two ago, I contacted a court-appointed lawyer before taking over a case from him. He was irked that I called and wasted his time, and he informed me that he had no clue who the client was anyway because he has 1200 different clients on his caseload.

Public defenders and turn-and-burn contract lawyers weren’t the place to look, but the people who had my dream practice were no better as a guide. They had very few clients, but they were all bigger cases. If I’d have taken so few clients, I’d have starved with the types of cases I did in the beginning. On top of that, they handled the kinds of cases I had no business touching fresh out of law school. Without any perfect example to follow, I did my best to set limits on my caseload and hoped that one day I’d be busy enough to worry about that kind of thing.

As with many of the elaborate plans I laid in beginning, my efforts largely turned out to be a waste of time. I didn’t realize just how different each case and each client really can be. I could have guessed that some would be more demanding than others, but I never would have realized how much of the difference isn’t apparent without experience.

I’ve had “easy” DUI cases kill over a hundred hours. One of my first jury trials should have been a straightforward burglary case, but I must have ended up interviewing fifty witnesses, many of whom suddenly popped up on the eve of trial. After a few years, I’ve gotten better at guessing from the initial consultation and the discovery whether it’s going to be an unusually demanding case or client. I don’t have delusions of grandeur though; I still regularly underestimate cases and quote flat fees that end up way too low in the long run.

It’s also tough to realistically assess your own efficiency when you haven’t done something before. How long does it take for you to read and digest medical records? Bank statements? Accident reconstructions? I realized pretty fast that I’m generally quick figuring out a familiar document, but that a little change in the format can double or triple my time.

No case management policy is going to be a substitute for experience. No amount of experience is a substitute for a little more experience. Most lawyers assume they’ll know when their caseload is too heavy because they’ll be rolling in money. They think they’ll see the huge bank account balance and hire an associate. In the real world, it isn’t unusual for a lawyer to be buried under an excessive caseload while barely getting by financially. A law license is a license to practice law. It isn’t a license to print money, no matter what marketers say.

Setting a cutoff number or creating a formula for deciding when to begin rejecting cases isn’t a bad idea, but it’s anything but a guarantee. Managing caseload, like the law in general, is practice. It’s never time to kick your feet up and quit thinking about it. As depressing as that may seem, at least it’s comforting to know you’ll keep getting better.

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