Well, it pays the bills. A solo criminal defense practice that generates over $100,000 in billings. No employees and no need to advertise. There’s just one small detail: you’ll handle 558 cases in a year and take 4 to trial. Fewer than one percent.
It’s not difficult to find a solo practice like the one I just described. Thomas Eikenberry, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based lawyer, runs this kind of operation, as presumably do his colleagues who are subject to audit for running up more than $100,000 annually in court-appointed billings. Mind you, there’s no allegation of wrongdoing – the audits are standard practice for anyone who bills more than $100k. Nothing to suggest that Eikenberry isn’t doing his job “serving clients” as he pushes cases through the system (Another reason why “client service” isn’t necessarily the right or only metric for evaluating the quality of a lawyer). As Eikenberry says in the article, most of his clients admit that they’re guilty and would like to accept responsibility and move on. Still. Even taking all that into account, the question remains whether this is the kind of job that you want to do for your clients, or if this is the kind of practice you want.
Do you want to be the lawyer who asks the client if he wants to consider a plea before even investigating the case? Do you want to be the lawyer who moves clients in and out of your office and the court room like widgets on an assembly line? Do you want to be the kind of lawyer who isn’t a lawyer at all, but just a glorified administrator who can be readily replaced by a non-lawyer.
I realize that many criminal indigents have few options for representation, and probably can’t even afford the $40-$50 an hour that the state pays court-appointed lawyers. Likewise, with so many lawyers graduating without jobs and starting out hungry, court-appointed work is like manna from the heavens. For that reason, court-appointed work makes sense — but only so long as you handle each case with the level of excellence that every client deserves and that professional responsibility demands. Court-appointed work is not – and was never supposed to be a full time job. Once you find yourself compromising your standards or breaking ethics rules (whichever comes first), it’s time to wean yourself off court-appointed work.
My book on solo practice is called Solo by Choice because I believe that when we start a law firm, we make an affirmative choice to stay in the law. But here are other choices in solo practice as well as well. You can choose, as I have argued in my most recent plenaries, to practice as a lawyer in our highest and best use – be it as a trusted advisor or zealous advocate. Or you can choose to be the lawyer who cuts corners, who makes it up on volume, who moves 558 cases a year and tries just four.
When you start a law firm, why bother unless you’re going to operate as a lawyer in your highest and best use? Because if what you’re doing just pays the bills and nothing more, you might as well work for someone else.
Note: post was updated with minor expansion in Para 2 at noon.