Sunday, December 12, 2010

Anyone Available To Cover?

Matt Brown over at Chandler Criminal Defense laments the crappy, lazy, too busy to represent their clients, lawyers who have their own definition of "coverage."

He recalls his early days of practice:

When I first started out, other attorneys would regularly take advantage of my willingness to help out. I was eager to meet lawyers and get into court. Other lawyers were eager to avoid work. Lawyers who had the same tribal indigent defense contract I did would ask me to cover hearings and tell me the hearings were just simple continuances. The clients were pissed no one visited them, judges were mad the defense had blown deadlines, and prosecutors were frustrated that the defense hadn’t returned their calls. One lawyer asked me to cover what she said was “a dismissal.” I appeared and it was a bench trial. She thought the victim wouldn’t show and it would just get dismissed. She thought wrong, and I was like a deer in headlights.

Criminal defense lawyers who are members of e-mail listservs know all too well the everyday occurrence of this:

"Is anyone going to be in (name courthouse) tomorrow?"

Or with the economy causing lawyers to take cases hundreds of miles away from home:

"Can anyone cover a case (name city at least 150 miles away) tomorrow at 9:30? It's the first pre-trial conference, just need a continuance, thanks."

Matt's post goes in to detail regarding one hearing he covered that turned in to a "disaster." Those of us who have covered know about these "disasters" all too well.

I caused a disaster for a lawyer once. I went out of town. (Rule #1 for criminal defense lawyers - you cannot go out of town when anything is set for court, period. It does not matter what is set. If you are not there, something will go wrong. Guaranteed.) A client was set for trial. There was some sense the victim was not going to appear and the case was going to be dismissed. The client made clear that if the victim appeared, he would enter a plea of guilty. The victim appeared, and the client changed his mind. My "coverage" lawyer spent 4 days in trial before the case was eventually dismissed. Yeah, terrible.

Matt Brown says: I can’t just refuse to help out other lawyers when they really need it. If I know they’re incompetent or unethical or there’s something else wrong with them, the case, or the situation in general, I say no. I have no problem disappointing people when it’s necessary. What happens when the lawyer asking me for a favor is an unknown though? Do I only help lawyers when I’m familiar with their work? How familiar? Or do I help anyone unless I have reason to believe they suck? Should I help anyone regardless of my opinion of their lawyering so long as they haven’t thrown me into a crappy situation in the past?

You're a good guy Matt, but you need to draw a line when it comes to stepping up to a podium to advocate for a client - even if it's not your client - especially if it's not your client.

First, never cover a "critical" hearing for a lawyer. I'll cover your motion for continuance, or "status" report. (or whatever you call a "judge, I'm here to advise the court that...... hearing). I will not take a plea for you. Most lawyers worth anything would never ask another lawyer to cover a plea - too many things can go wrong, like the client can decide not to plea and the judge can announce that a jury panel is coming down now and you are trying the case.

Second, I will not cover for those lawyers who, as a practice, take cases all over the state with the knowledge that they can seek coverage all the time. If you want to take a case 300 miles away, that's what we have airports and expressways for, not e-mail listservs. It's the same lawyers, sending the same e-mails, all the time. If you can't make money practicing close to home - move.

Finally, I'm not covering for shitty lawyers. Chances are, you're not telling me the whole story, like that your client is routinely late, brings his girlfriend and screaming baby in a stroller to every hearing, or will keep me outside in the hallway for 20 minutes asking me questions I can't answer. If I don't respect you as a lawyer, I'm not entering a courtroom and announcing that I know you.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter