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?


  1. George M. Zuganelis on April 21, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    The abuses of volume practice are legion in Cook County, Illinois (that’s the county in which Chicago is located). This is mostly in the criminal courts. Specifically, misdomeanor and DUI cases. There are many who have this volume practice, but one stands out in particular. He purchases lists of recent arrests in all of Cook County weekly from the Clerk of the Circuit Court. He sends out post cards with his picture on it so the clients will recognize him ( he has no office and does not meet the clients ahead of the court date). His answering service sends the clients instructions to get an alcohol evaluation before the first court date. These are used in sentencing a defendant. Up to this time he has not met with the client nor received any discovery. He charges $250, and pleads everyone guilty on the first court date. He was severly repremanded by a judge for pleading a client guilty when the breath test results were .04. In Illinois the presumption lies with the defendant with a breath test result under .08. Not only is this walking violation of the Sixth Amendment destroying business for real lawyers, he is doing great harm to his clients. The scary thing is that there are several lawyers out there like him. He was exposed in a newspaper article about 7 years ago, but that hasn’t stopped him. Prosecutors do not respect him, but say nothing because he pleads everyone guilty. I wish I knew what to do to counter these lawyers.

  2. sharita on April 22, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    I do not agree with having a volume practice and do not have one. However, what are the suggestions for how these lawyers can get criminal clients that have the funds to pay an attorney the fees that will allow them to stop a volume practice? I think that criminal law is unique in that many Defendants can get a court appointed attorney and the Defendants that cannot qualify are working from pay check to pay check and do not have savings, assets nor relatives that do.

  3. midlevel on April 22, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    What exactly constitutes a volume practess? How many cases? Of course, its more than any one lawyer can handle competently, but if we’re talking raw numbers, what do some of these practices look like?

  4. Benjamin K. Sanchez on April 26, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    I have a dual-docket practice that includes a high-volume (over 5,000 cases) collection litigation practice and a civil litigation practice that includes construction, commercial, consumer, and probate litigation. I have a Nov. 2007 licensed associate, a college graduate who will also get a paralegal certificate in July, and an administrative assistant. I am in the process of hiring another young associate and a third staff person. I admit that the volume practice takes up a lot of time, and a senior paralegal or more experienced attorney can’t keep up with it if I turn it over to them (I’ve tried). I’ve now decided that I’m going to determine roles for everyone in the firm, while I still retain overall practice management. I started my practice a little over a year ago and like that I have grown so fast, but I also do not see myself doing volume business forever. At the very least, I want to train others to manage those cases in a few years so that I can do more of the “cause cases,” which are those cases I take just because I want to, which I can because of the volume practice. My volume practice pays for the bills, while my other litigation allows me to have fun practicing law.

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