The Perils of the Volume Practice – and Ways to Avoid Them

Scott Greenfield’s post at Simple Justice about solo immigration lawyer, Frank Liu’s disciplinary problems highlights the perils of the volume practice.  Referencing this New York Times article, Greenfield describes how Liu’s carelessly written form briefs (where he sometimes neglected to change the sections describing the facts) ultimately landed him in hot water with the Second Circuit, which referred him to the court’s disciplinary committee for his “seriously deficient work.”

Not surprisingly, Liu ran a low cost shop – charging a flat fee of $2500 for an appeal, then making it up on volume.   As a result, Liu wound up juggling cases and cutting corners, which is typical for volume practice.  Lawyers who handle large numbers of cases face increased stress – and long hours leave little time to develop other business that might help escape the low margins of the numbers game.  Moreover, as Liu’s case bears out, running a volume practice can expose lawyers to grievances and disciplinary actions because there’s not enough time for quality control.

Despite well publicized stories about harried practitioners like Liu, many lawyers still fall into the volume practice trap.  And while I don’t endorse volume practice as a long term business strategy, I realize many lawyers with volume practices serve a segment of the population who need representation and can’t afford high rates – and that’s an important role.   Thus,  as a profession, we need ideas to help practitioners make volume practices more efficient – and here are some ideas for doing that.

First, a volume practice requires low overhead.  Lawyers engaged in volume practice should figure out ways to reduce costs and automate their practice to avoid hiring unnecessary staff.  For example, a paperless office that relies on a web based client management system would let clients access their own paperwork and cut down on the need for permanent staff.  Lawyers could also try to automate intake procedures so as to try to screen out truly deadbeat clients – and retain strict policies about upfront payment to avoid cash flow problems – which take an added toll at the margines.

Second, lawyers in volume practices should look to outsourcing work.  In Liu’s case, he could have hired a law student or recent grad for $30-$50 an hour to work on his clients’ appeals.  At that rate, he could have gotten 30-50 hours of labor for $1500 and used the spare $1000 to review the briefs and pay himself.  Most law students or new grads would jump at the chance to work on federal circuit appeals and Liu could have chosen from a high quality labor pool eager for experience.

Even with these suggestions, a long term volume practice can take a toll.  Lawyers who intend to have a volume practice should always have some transition route in mind.  In particular, lawyers who work in volume need to allow enough time to market – either to find more lucrative cases or to bring in more cases that would sustain the cost of additional staff or lawyers who can manage whatever volume can’t be efficiently handled through automation and one lawyers’ efforts.

Do you have a volume practice?  And what are your suggestions for making it work?