By now, you've probably all heard at least a mention of Jorge Sanchez, the Nevada lawyer who walked away from his practice and left hundreds of clients hanging.
Sanchez's explanation apparently was that he'd realized he'd taken on too many clients too fast.
While some in the legal blogging world are understandably skeptical of Sanchez's explanation, the news coverage his situation as received turns the spotlight on a larger issue.
Young attorneys–just like young professionals in any field–do sometimes get overwhelmed or find themselves in over their heads.
Since law schools typically don't put much (if any) emphasis on the practical aspects of legal practice, solos just starting out might have no idea where to turn when they start to feel overwhelmed or like they've taken on more than they can handle or aren't even aware that there are options available. Unfortunately, that often means getting in deeper and deeper, even when the attorney has the best of intentions.
The first and most important thing to do in that circumstance is stop and take stock.
Because solos have to think about keeping the doors open and the lights on, attorneys already feeling overwhelmed sometimes continue to take on new cases because they're worried about covering the overhead.
Of course, the end result is often that the lawyer is buried even deeper. Don't add to the problem until you have a clear plan.
First, consider the possible options for managing an overwhelming caseload…
Could some sort of outsourcing help address the problem?
Sanchez apparently had 669 consumer bankruptcy cases pending. That's pretty overwhelming for one person, but bankruptcy petition preparation services for attorneys abound, and some companies even offer more extensive bankruptcy case support services. And with bankruptcy cases pre-paid, the cost of that kind of support is covered before the attorney has to spend any money.
Who can you look to for advice?
While solo practitioners don't have the advantage of more seasoned attorneys in the firm with ultimate responsibility for their caseloads, most know experienced attorneys they could reach out to for guidance.
Too often, young lawyers in need of help hold back because they're worried about the impression they'll make if they share their problems and concerns. Unfortunately, in the end that often leads to making an even worse impression when they can no longer keep all the balls in the air and mistakes and complaints start to rain down.
Could you hand off some of your cases or bring in co-counsel?
Of course, money is tight for many solos and you may be loathe to consider parting with some of your fee, but it's important to think long term. Your license to practice law is your livelihood, and your reputation is nearly as critical. And, you might be surprised by the net result; if you're bringing in a lot of cases but unable to keep up, sharing the workload with another attorney might actually increase your revenues rather than decrease them, since you'll have the flexibility to take on more and to serve those clients better.
The bottom line is that there are options.
It's easy to lose sight of possible law firm solutions when you spend all of your time putting out fires, and attorneys aren't immune to that reality. But if there's one lesson we can learn from our clients it's that ignoring problems does not make them go away; they continue to grow until we find a way to root them out. Perhaps one day law schools will give attorneys the tools to address those practical issues in their professional lives, but the fact that they haven't yet doesn't mean that those solutions don't exist–only that you'll have to invest a little more effort to find them.