What's A Fair Rate for Court Appointed Counsel?
Over at David Giacalone's web log, there's more coverage of the situation with Massachusetts court appointed attorneys. In case you missed David's prior coverage (which he links back to extensively in his post), a group of Massachusetts court appointed criminal attorneys first initiated a boycott to protest $30/hr fees (now raised to $37.50) and now challenge a court ruling where judges are forcing the attorneys to take court appointed cases in light of shortages caused by low pay. There's also a rousing debate in the comment section where David asks what the appropriate market rate for court appointed service should be - and what kinds of overhead costs the rate should cover?
I wish that I could access my archives now, because I have always counselled against solo and small firm attorneys who try to make a living exclusively on low paying court appointed work. One of David's commentors calculates that $40/hour at 2000 hours a year comes to $80,000 total with two weeks of vacaation. But there are also 10 federal holidays when the courts close, so you're down to about $76,000 if you deduct 80 hours of time for that. I think most others who do court appointed work have that calculation in mind as well. But what they don't realize is that of that amount, there are also expenses - a bare-bones minimum would encompass $2000/year for malpractice, $600-$1200/year for mail drop/virtual office (since criminal attorneys won't want to use a home address even if working from home); $600/year for LEXIS or some kind of computerized research service, another $1000/year for Internet and phone service. So now you're down $4800 or to $71,000. And that's assuming there's a spouse to cover health insurance; tack that on and you're down another $3500/year or to $68,500. And don't forget bar dues, CLE and other licensing fees - another $1000 or down to $67,500. Again, this assumes that you're not repaying the costs of computer equipment or any other capital investment. It assumes that you're working from home and not renting office space. It assumes that you don't buy any office supplies, e.g., paper, postage, ink cartridges. (I won't even calculate the tax differences between a self-employed person who pays all withholdings and self-employment tax but will call it even w/business deductions).
So $66,500 pre-tax. That doesn't sound bad either for 40 hour work weeks. Except, they're not 40 hours. There's admin time to keep and send in vouchers and handle other tasks attendent to solo practice which can consume another 2 hours per day. And that's assuming that the court pays for every single hour you've worked - and doesn't cap waiting time in court or other work that it considers excessive. That could amount to a 5 percent deduction.
Which is still not an awful paycheck (until you add in what could be $10,000/year in student loan obligations - but those are not unique to court appointed attorneys). And indeed, it's comparable to what many contract attorneys make, until you add in their overtime. But it's also a very difficult way to earn that kind of money - and it's uncertain as well. In D.C., the court would not pay court appointed counsel until a case was concluded, so you might be waiting 4 months for the case to cycle through and 8 weeks after for pay. It's those types of exingencies that lead court appointed attorneys to overbook, I think - which diminishes the quality of their work.
Frankly, I certainly can't understand why solo and small firm attorneys would choose court appointed work as a business model when it would make more sense for attorneys to voluntarily cap their court appointed work (I'd say to 1/4 of their practice but even 1/2 could work) and spend the rest of the time looking for cases that could pay 5 times more. And once you lock yourself into 40 hours a week at $40/hour, there's very little time left to market and few resources to "play" with that might, for example, enable an attorney to take on a riskier contingency case with higher reward.
When I handled court appointed work in D.C., the rate was $50/hour which I found to be quite reasonable. It allowed me to be paid to enter a different practice area and the money I generated, albeit not more than $10,000 year was welcome. But because my energy regulatory practice paid three times what I made for criminal work, I never had to rely on it as a sole source of income - and that made all the difference in how I viewed the rate.
In any event, all of which is a very round-about way of concluding that $40/hr for court appointed counsel may not be as chintzy as it initially appears. But, that figure only works for a shoe-string practice and on the assumption that every hour billed is collectable which it's often not. And of course, there are also regional variances - some costs, like malpractice insurance or virtual office space may differ depending upon where you're located. On the other hand, an hourly rate of $40/hour without any cap is far preferable to, say, capping cases at $1500 or $2000. Caps give attorneys too much incentive to scrimp to salvage a decent billing rate.
I'd love to hear what others have to say about this.
Would Biglaw Pay More to Help A Legal Aid or Solo Attorney?
Let's say two law students, neck and neck in class rank graduate law school with $80,000 in student loan debt (including interest) - or roughly $8000/year over a ten year period. Student A goes on to his dream job at a large New York firm, starting salary $125K while Student B follows his dream to work as a Legal Aid attorney, starting salary $40,000. Clearly, Student B is going to be facing financial disaster while Student A should be able to repay his loans with minimal impact. But what if instead of each student repaying $9000/year, each paid a set percentage of his respective salary - say, $12,500 (10 percent) for Student A and $4000 for Student B. That's the proposal that Michelle Singletary highlights in her recent column A New Idea on Student Loans , (11/28/04).
Would this kind of proposal encourage law students to follow their dreams? It's not clear since the biglaw attorney would still come out way ahead in terms of salary, even while subsidizing his legal aid classmate's loan repayments. And would large firm attorneys want to do this? What about a situation where a large firm attorney subsidizes a starting solo who's gone solo, frankly, because he couldn't find another job? Would the subsidy system penalize lawyers who've done well enough to snag high paying jobs and force them to pay for those who didn't work hard enough to do as well?
I'm intrigued by this concept, but not sure where I come down. Sure, I'd like to see more financial support for new solo attorneys because I think that helping solos is one way to expand access to law for a larger segment of the population. But I've never given much thought to where the money should come from. So I'd love to hear comments from readers on this idea.
A Welcome Change: New England States Ease Up on Stringent Bar Rules
As reported in New Rules May Spur Competition for Maine, NH and VT Attorneys, (AP)(11/29/04), courts in these three states will allow some out-of-state lawyers to be admitted to the bar without taking the bar exam, under a reciprocal admission agreement. A lawyer from any of the three states can apply for the right to practice in one of the other states by taking 15 hours of continuing education in the laws of that state. Currently, lawyers licensed in one of those states must take a bar exam to represent a client in the other two states.
These types of changes make so much sense, particular in adjacent states where lawyers are likely to represent clients who may have inter-jurisdictional matters. It's a lot to ask an attorney to take three separate bar exams to qualify to practice in adjacent jurisdictions. Other clustered states - for example, the DC-MD-VA region where I practice - ought to consider adopting this change. It promotes competition which can only improve the quality of legal service while diminishing the cost. Nothing wrong with that.
In Defense of Word Perfect
Dennis Kennedy is apparently a Word 2003 fan who doesn't get the Word Perfect phenomenon. Perhaps this clever defense of Word Perfect, "Show Me the Codes" by New York solo attorney David Leffler will give Dennis some insight into why those of us loyal WP groupies resist crossing over to the other side:
Show Me The Codes
(sung to the tune of "Send in the Clowns")
by David Leffler
(with apologies to Stephen Sondheim)
Isn't it strange, I can't reveal
Coding in documents, what is the deal?
Show me the codes!
Isn't it odd, I don't approve
No longer "Perfect", just "Word" - and I can't move.
Oh where are the codes - show me the codes!
Just when I stopped questioning which
Finally finding the one that I wanted - was ditched
Upgrading my version again with my usual flair
Sure of my macros - no software was there
Don't you love a farce; my fault I fear
I thought that everyone wanted what I wanted - sorry my dear
Oh where are the codes - show me the codes
I sure need a beer!
Isn't it rich, isn't it queer
Losing my word "app" this late in my career
Oh where are the codes - show me the codes
Unseen is unclear!
Our Site's Current Status
Yes, it's been a week since joining the Law.com Blog Network and we're still scrambling to repost nearly two years of archives. I have finally located a server company which seems capable of helping MyShingle make the transition - and which I will thank publicly and frequently if it can get this to happen. Still, with Thanksgiving this past weekend, it's probably going to be another week before this is all straightened out. In the meantime, to our new visitors: please keep reading - there's much more here than meets the eye. And to our old audience, hang in there for us - the site that you've supported over the past two years will be back soon, better than ever!
An Idea from India
These days, the legal profession is sending work out to India. But here's an idea from India that might be worth a look over here. According to this article, Lawyers Demand Stipends, Loans cities.expressindia (11/26/04), the Kharar Bar Association is demanding stipends and interest free loans from the government for junior lawyers to enable them to start their law practices. The loans, which would last for five years, would help new lawyers pay for books, offices and vehicles. The Kharar Bar also urged the government to set up libraries at every district in the state to benefit lawyers. Finally, the bar argued that the Bar Council of India should constitute special committees, comprising senior lawyers, at each district headquarter to train the junior lawyers, also demanded the KBA, besides urging that it should be made mandatory for each senior lawyer to train a fixed number of junior lawyers and senior lawyers should also be asked to pay monthly emolument to the junior lawyers, attached with them.
All ideas that could help new solos in the U.S. get their practices off the ground. Wonder where we'll see these ideas implemented first?
Lawyers Outside the Law
This past weekend, I came across four articles about lawyers - mostly those who've started their own practices - who've found success but nevertheless left the law for non-legal careers. There's Noah Lippman, a 45 year old criminal defense attorney on Wall Street with his own lucrative practice who's now a high school history teacher (though still of counsel at his firm). There's 50 year old Florida criminal defense attorney Ed Stafman who did well enough after 25 years of law practice to throw himself into a Rabbinic program where he's studying to become a Rabbi. And in the entertainment field, lawyer Dan Neal recently released a CD while 40 something Roger Schroeder who teaches law part time at UCLA will see his screenplay, A Boyfriend for Christmas as a Hallmark holiday television special.
For Neal and Schroeder, they continued to practice even as they pursued their entertainment careers. But Lippman and Stafman made almost a clean break, realizing over a period of time that their legal careers weren't generating enough satisfaction to warrant staying. So for those who've wondered, I guess that's how to tell when it's time to go.
Anyone else out there ever pursue a second career or thinking about leaving the law? Send us a comment and share your experience with us.
Solo, But Never Alone
When you start your own practice, you may be solo but you're never alone. You can't be - or you won't succeed. This article, No Lawyer Is An Island, Guy Harrison, Small Firm Business (11/29/04) highlights the necessity for solo and small firm lawyers to build relationships with others - from attorneys to support staff and court personnel - whom solos can call on when they need a hand.
Jay Foonberg's Famous Holiday Cards
Most of us solos know Jay Foonberg as the author of the solo bible, How to Start and Build a Law Practice. Who could have guessed that he's also a purveyor of the kind of "hey, look-at-me!" holiday cards (e.g., pictures with the Pope, at the South Pole) described in this article, Holiday Card Games: The Complex Politics of Winter Greetings, Monica Bay, Law Firm Inc. (12/2004).
The article lists a couple of pet peeves that other attorneys have about holiday cards they receive, including misspelled names, bland politically correct cards or cards covered with signatures of people that the recipient doesn't know. Some of those quoted in the article prefer to bypass the holidays entirely, opting for Thanksgiving cards (that beat the holiday rush) or Valentines' Day candy.
What do you plan on sending out this year? Drop us a comment and let us know.
My Shingle Now Part of Law.com Network
As of today, My Shingle joins our fellow bloggers listed here an official member of the Law.com Blog Network. Unfortunately, we're off to a bit of a rocky start due to server problems over on our home machine. As our regular readers can see, the current site offers only a fraction of the content that our readers have come to expect. We hope to have the site with two years worth of archives up and running shortly and even though we will transition over typepad for a more stable platform, you'll still be able to access all of the content very easily.
Despite some of these problems, I'm thrilled to be part of the affiliate program. As the site's upgrade progresses, I look forward to unveiling our new tagline, My Shingle.com: Opening Doors to Small Firm Practice. Isn't it time that you put your name on the door? (We're even experimenting with this new logo design here below) Our new tagline encapsulates the dual purposes of our website. First, we seek to open the doors on solo and small firm practice to others in the profession. We want to show what it's like to be a solo, to focus on the concerns and issues unique to solo and small firm attorneys and most of all to shine a spotlight on those bar policies (e.g., disciplinary programs, mandatory CLE and pro bono) which seem facially neutral but disproportionately impact solo and small firm lawyers in a negative way. Second, we hope to help and inspire other lawyers - be they recent graduates, retirees or biglaw associates or partners - to open the door to their own solo or small firm practice. To this end, we offer an On Line Guide on Starting a Firm (to be uploaded soon) and dozens of articles and tips on starting and running a law firm. Through our affiliation with law.com, we believe that we can reach many more lawyers and help them realize their dream of solo and small firm practice - and make the bar and the public recognize the importance of the small firm lawyer in our judicial system.