Court Appointed Work Is Not Supposed To Be A Full Time Job!

Well after all of the controversy, looks like the Massachusetts legislature will raise rates for court appointed attorneys as reported here in State House OK’s Raises for Lawyers for the Poor, David Abel (July 22, 2005).  According to the article, lawmakers will increase court appointed rates to $100 an hour from $61.50 for homicide cases; to $60 per hour from $46.50 for nonhomicide Superior Court cases, including sexually dangerous persons cases; and to $50 per hour from $37.50 for district court cases and children in need of services cases, as well as children and family law cases, sex offender registry, and mental health cases.  However, the plan also caps the number of hours that each attorney can bill, to 1400 annually.  Thus, the maximum that attorneys can earn from court appointed work annually would range from $70,000 (handling lower end cases) to $84,500 (at the upper end).

You’d think that the Massachusetts lawyers would be grateful for the generous pay increase, but they’re still complaining:

”In order to do this work well, you have to do it a lot,”
said Joss Filiault, an attorney from Concord who worked about 1,800
hours as a bar advocate during the last fiscal year. ”It’s difficult
work that requires expertise. There seems to be an attitude in the
Legislature that it’s bad to do this work as your primary work. I don’t
understand that.”

But here’s the thing:  no one is stopping attorneys like Filiault from
handling other cases that might pay $200/hour.  And even if lawyers
believe that they need to focus full time on criminal work to keep
skills intact, well, hello – there are many clients who will actually
pay lawyers, quite generously, for representation in criminal matters.
Think the late Johnnie Cochran or Thomas Mesereau.  They handled
criminal work and certainly weren’t getting $60 an hour for it.

Court appointed lawyers can’t expect a guaranteed stream of revenue at
private rates.  It’s a trade off.  If lawyers want the security of a
flow of cases for which they don’t have to advertise or market, then
they can settle for court appointed work at a lower rate.  If they want
to make more, then they need to go out and find the clients who are
going to pay – and stop asking the captive ones to fork up even more
money.

And as I’ve always said, court appointed work is interesting and a good way to pay the rent early on or even a way to do work that’s got a pro bono element without working entirely for free.  But if you want to step up to a successful practice, your plan has got to include weaning yourself from court appointed work.  After all, why limit yourself to $84,000 a year when you could possibly make ten times that much?