What It Takes To Be A Great Trial Lawyer – Part 5

5.  A Great Trial Lawyer Maintains A Reasonable Caseload

In Part 4 we discussed the fact that great trial lawyers take time to think about their cases. And we mentioned that many lawyer argue that they don’t have time to think.

I suggest that there are only four possible reasons why lawyers don’t have time to think. First, a lawyer who doesn’t have time to think is not working hard enough. Alternatively, a lawyer who doesn’t have time to think has too much work. Third, it possible the lawyer has an appropriate caseload and is working an appropriate number of hours but is not operating efficiently. Fourth, a lawyer who doesn’t have time to think can be lazy.

My discussions with thousands of lawyers from around the country leads me to believe that (a) most lawyers are working plenty of hours (and many are probably working too many hours); (b) most lawyers have too much work (maybe not the work they want, but work they agreed to undertake); (c) the level of efficiency varies significantly; and (d) there are undoubtedly lawyers who are lazy. We won’t spend any time discussing lazy lawyers – they will never be great trial lawyers.

It is natural for a lawyer to have more work than he or she should ideally have. We all fear the lack of work, and wonder where the next case will come from, and therefore we tend to gather as many cases as we can to have the comfort of a full file cabinet (or six).

But great trial lawyers recognize that they can handle only a certain number of cases at one time. Keeping up with the substantive law and the law of evidence and procedure takes time. Taking the time to develop a strategy for the case and implementing the strategy takes time. Throw in family, social and other obligations and time seems to evaporate.

So what is a reasonable case load? It depends on the type of cases the lawyer is handling and the support personal utilized. Let me use medical malpractice cases for the plaintiff as an example. ( I pick this because I worked on my first medical malpractice case as a summer clerk in 1980 and have had med mal cases as a part of my caseload for the last 26 years.) If your court system will permit those cases to be tried in eighteen to twenty-four months, you do your own legal writing, and you have no support staff other than a secretary I believe it would be extremely difficult to effectively handle more than eight of those cases (particularly if they involved different medical disciplines) at a time. And it would virtually impossible to try each one of those cases in that time frame and keep opening cases and working on cases to keep your caseload at eight .

I say this working under the assumption that you are properly preparing those cases for trial. Sure, you could schlep through the work, just like you can buy a steak at Waffle House. I am talking about doing it right.

On the other hand, if you have the right support staff you can try a two or three-day intersection wreck case every Monday of every  week. I know of lawyers, great trial lawyers, who have a system in place where other professionals do everything in the case except try it. These lawyers have a basis for the expectation that the case has been properly prepared. They get the data they need for trial is a systemized format and can prepare quickly.  They have to spend minimal time on the law because they have a narrow practice area and the evidentiary issues are the same in almost every case. They can maintain a much larger caseload because they are able to leverage their trial skills through qualified support staff on substantially similar cases

So, the answer to the question of what is a reasonable caseload depends on the circumstances. Indeed, one case may be too many, and fifty cases may not be enough. A great trial lawyer identifies the type of practice that works for them, and then creates a structure around them  that supports that practice.

The bottom line: great lawyers maintain a reasonable caseload. They either restrict the number of cases they take, limit the breadth of their practice areas so as to take more cases but achieve economies of scale, systemize their practice to become more efficient, employ more personnel (or acquire the talent through outsourcing) to leverage the great trial lawyer’s talent, or employ a combination of the foregoing. In other words, they find some way of delivering high quality, timely service that works for them – and for their clients.

Read the rest of the Great Trial Lawyers series.