Weighing the Value of Court Appointments

In an attempt to get more cases coming in the door, my partner and I both placed ourselves on various court appointment lists. This was no easy task. But after lots of letters and phone calls we managed to make our way on to a few lists. These lists have kept us extremely busy. In the month of September alone, I’ve been appointed on over fifty cases so far. We can get off these lists at any time. So the question becomes: are the cases worth the stress?

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The Benefit of Experience

Court appointments have been a huge boon to my experience level both in and out of the courtroom. Due to the sheer number of clients, I’m in court frequently. And due to the sometimes unfamiliar areas of the law I’m appointed on, I spend a lot of time preparing for hearings. I’ve touched cases I would have never dreamed of marketing myself for. I’ve gained experience in new areas of the law, and found those areas rewarding. I also have the opportunity to handle larger cases than I would likely get any other way.

The Time Suck

With all of these cases coming in, I end up spending a lot of time in court. That’s great. Except I don’t spend a lot of time in the courtroom. Instead, I wait in the hallway with all the other lawyers. There’s no wi-fi in the courthouse and it’s almost impossible to do other work. Meanwhile, some of these appointments happen at the very last minute. Last week I got a phone call in the morning for a case that afternoon. I get it, it’s the nature of the business.

Whether it’s the norm or not, this practice makes scheduling a nightmare. As a result, some of my private clients have gotten bumped or moved around to accomodate my court appointed clients. I’ve also gotten double–booked by two different judges. Luckily, the other attorneys who handle court appointments have been very helpful in covering for me when necessary.

The Pay

I’m in a geographic area where almost all court appointments are paid hourly. That makes all the hallway time much easier to handle. But it also means I can’t do other work while waiting for my case to be called. If I do I have to come off the clock, and it can get a bit tedious to track all of that. Regardless, I think the hourly rate is fair. Of course it’s not what I would get while working for a private client, but it’s still a reliable paycheck.

The Problem Client

Unlike private practice where you can get an idea about a prospective client before she hires you, court appointed clients come as-is. If you don’t get along with them or they become a problem client, there isn’t much you can do. The court has to let you out of the case. And if they let you out, some other attorney will just have to get up to speed, and bill the court to do so. I’ve run into a few of these issues so far, and they definitely make it difficult to stay on the appointment list. But at the same time it’s a form of experience. Experience in dealing with very tough clients.

Conclusions

Overall I’ve found the court appointment work rewarding so far. Like many new solo/small firm practitioners, I will continue to take the appointments until I can’t adequately represent the clients while building my own practice. The pay isn’t great but it’s consistent. The hours are frustrating but that’s the nature of the beast. For the few problem clients I’ve encountered, I’ve also met lots of interesting clients and helped them with their troubles.

Do you take court appointments? Did you at any point? Let’s hear about your experience in the comments.

  • Stephen

    Are you not required to have significant trial experience as a LICENSED attorney prior to being added to the list in your area? This is interesting.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/joshcamson/ Josh Camson

      I don’t think they would appoint someone who isn’t a licensed attorney.

      That being said, the requirements for appointments vary county to county in PA. In the counties I practice in there are trainings to attend, but no courtroom-based requirements. The only statewide requirements I’m aware of are for death penalty cases.

      • Stephen

        Obviously, no court would appint an unlicensed attorney! The reason I put the emphasis on “licensed” is because most counties I am familiar with require significant jury trial experience as a licensed practitioner. Trial experience with a 3rd year bar card does not count.

  • http://adamlillylaw.com/ Adam Lilly

    Georgia’s system for all this is a mess right now, and has been in transition over the last decade or so. The new system seemed pretty nice until a single case (Bryan Nichols) bankrupted it all.

    Personally I’m really glad I’m not doing criminal law, because if I were I think I’d have to get on the lists. I love being able to turn down problem clients. It doesn’t happen often, because I am young and hungry, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to say (typically in other words) “no amount of money is worth dealing with you. You are the worst. Take this to someone else, and no, I won’t give you a referral.”

  • http://www.chetson.com Damon Chetson

    I’m a criminal defense lawyer in Raleigh. I got off all lists earlier this year because, basically, court appointment lists are a recipe for never making a living. Right now, North Carolina pays $55/hour for most criminal defense cases, and in some cases – such as my county – they’ve moved to a contract-based system where you get paid between $17,000 and $20,000 for a unit, with a unit being a certain number of cases. At the misdemeanor level, it’s approximately 125 cases per unit. That’s less than $200 for a misdemeanor case. While some cases will resolve very quickly, many will not.

    This system is a recipe for IAC claims. In addition, while there are certainly stories about a court appointment leading to paying referrals, in my experience that is more akin to playing a lottery, than a feature of court appointment lists.

    In my private work, when I come across folks who need to be cut a break or charged very little or no fees, I will consider taking their case pro bono or near-pro bono. I find that arrangement works best for the client – who is genuinely usually grateful for my help – and me – who ultimate gets better referrals from a grateful client.

    Also – I do not think it’s appropriate for anyone who does not truly want to practice criminal defense work to ever take court appointed clients simply for the added business. People who are indigent do not deserve to have inexperienced lawyers dealing with their cases simply because there’s a list that pays.

  • Inga

    I took mental health commitment cases and child protection cases when I started out. Right out of school, I was allowed to represent people in their fight to keep their freedom and their children. That though scares the crap out of me now. At the time here in Maine, no special training was required for any court appointments! Now, there is annual training required, but I think it is woefully inadequate. And the pay is $50/hr.