We need more lawyers (Part 1)

(This is the first of a 5 part essay.)

The title of this essay probably sounds like a wonderful joke to some, a perplexing/disturbing admission to others, and a self-serving sham to the rest.  But, its true. I believe we need more attorneys in the world.

The general population has a stereotype for lawyers, and that will never change. Jokes with dead lawyers in the punch line will not go away just because there are more or less of us. So, this essay does not concern itself with the macro-level public approval ratings of attorneys.  Besides, when those folks get in a jam, they will look for the best attorney they can find, just like the rest of us.

We need more attorneys because of what our clients say. In surveying various authorities on the problems with attorney representation, I found a succinct list of 5 areas for improvement compiled and explained by Jeffrey Miller and Jill Kohn at the Lawmarketing Portal. They distill complaints into these 5 areas:  cost and billing, lack of response, incompetence, not understanding the client’s needs, and conflicts with partners or staff.

Let’s take this one out of order, to an extent.

Lack of Response. This complaint rears its ugly head constantly. Every attorney I know, including myself, has been accused of this at one time or another. Frankly, I was guilty of it–especially when I was balancing a number of cases or in a busy court week as a military public defender. I’m not proud of it, but its true. Looking at the why of this complaint, the response is nearly universal among my colleagues–workload.

I talked with a paralegal once who was lamenting about her boss, an attorney. The prior week, she assisted him in hauling over 60 divorce files to the courthouse for action. Over 60! Those were only the cases he had in court for that day. What about the next week? Month? How does a person remember the names of their clients, their specific needs, and display the level of advocacy necessary to truly represent their client during what is, undoubtedly, one of the most significant stages of their life. Several of these clients became my clients for separate matters. In some way, they all asked “I hope you’ll return my calls, because my last lawyer didn’t.”

Considering that each of these cases likely generated $1000-$2500 in fees, the attorney received a significant paycheck for that week/month, but at what cost?

This begs two questions:

1. Did any of the clients ask about workload and how much time would be shared with other clients?

2. Were other attorneys available to take some of these cases?

The answers:  Generally No and No.

This attorney’s workload mirrored those of other divorce attorneys in the area (I am not one of them). Each of them arrived at the courthouse on “divorce day” with a cart full of files ready to work the assembly line inside the courtroom. Clients were stacked throughout the courthouse ready to hear their number called in order to find out how their assets would be cut in half and by whom.

The bottom line: more attorneys are necessary. If we truly take the concept of representation and advocacy seriously, one must agree with this conclusion. The result is better client service, better response, and more availability. Such things are necessary to ensure that we fully represent our clients, understand their story, and prepare to convey that story to the court.

Of course, there are those who are fans of the assembly line because of its revenue generating capabilities. True, these individuals become rich (or at least halfway rich), but aren’t we mortgaging a bit of what it truly means to be an advocate in order to pad our pocketbooks in such a manner?

After trial, I feel exhausted, and I can safely say that each of my clients who were subjected to a criminal trial got all of my energy, attention, and abilities during their ordeal. Mine is a low-volume niche. The thought of turning my practice into assembly-line law turns my stomach. Clients deserve better. Our profession deserves better. We deserve better.

Perhaps, when everything that needs to be said is said, I am an idealist out of touch with my profession. Maybe I fail to understand the necessities of modern law practice and the net revenue that defines our bottom line. Maybe my idea of a quality of law practice sounds nice, but is not practical in 2010.

For the sake of my future clients, I hope not.