U.S. Capitol Building

On lawyers who take on more than they can handle

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice, Professional Responsibility/Ethics

Back when I worked for the federal government, there were some employees who were really, really busy.  You knew this because their offices were a mess.  Their telephones were no longer accepting messages.  They had that harried look.  And they always talked about how busy they were, especially when you came in to give them more work.

Despite all this, the quality of their work did not seem to be any better than anyone else’s.  In fact it was usually worse.  This led you to wonder: What could they possibly be spending so much time on?

A lot of lawyers are like this too. People expect us to be busy so they cut us some slack.  And this is a shame, because it allows us to get away with all sorts of things.

I worked on an appeal recently in which I was trying to get the trial file.  I was particularly interested in a couple of exhibits, including the 9-1-1 calls, that were introduced at trial.   And yet the trial counsel refused to answer my calls. He did not call me back as a professional courtesy to a colleague.  He did not call me back as part of his ethical obligations to our mutual client.

Now.  One of the things I like about appellate practice is that there is usually very little interaction with clients.  Clients are in jail.  Or, losing interest, they have moved on to other things by the time you start working on their case.  This is a nice change of pace when you are doing lots of trial work.

In this case, however, I had a client who was very involved.  He called me every day for a month to find out how the case was proceeding even though the transcripts were still outstanding and I hadn’t even begun to think about the case.  So I decided to channel his interest and enthusiasm in a positive direction:  I set him upon my recalcitrant colleague.  I had the material I needed within a couple of days.

But I was left with a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to this lawyer. If you are too busy to return phone calls from a client or a colleague, then you are too busy to be taking on any more cases.  Clear your desk.  Return phone calls.  Answer your mail.  There is nothing admirable about taking on more work than you can handle.  There is nothing admirable about being in over your head.