March 2011 Bar Bulletin
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March 2011 Bar Bulletin


Defenders Spread Thin by Budget Crunch

By Bob Boruchowitz


At this time of year, a lot of lawyers are thinking about numbers — the numbers in their taxes. And a lot of folks struggling with the economy wish they could count greater numbers of clients.

But across the state and across the country there are thousands of lawyers, public defenders and assigned counsel who need to have dramatically fewer clients.

In Longview, the city expects one lawyer in its Municipal Court to represent clients in approximately 1,700 cases per year, according to documents it filed in requesting state funding. The Washington State Bar Association caseload standard is presumptively 300 cases per lawyer per year, with a maximum of 400 in certain circumstances, such as when there are post-filing diversion programs.

While there certainly is debate about what a reasonable “billable hour year” should be, increasingly both government and private firms use numbers between 1,450 and 1,800 hours per year as a guideline. At any reasonable number of billable hours, it is clear that a lawyer doing 1,700 cases per year is not providing the “thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation” of clients as required by RPC 1.1.

When the Washington Supreme Court was considering establishing a rule that would require public defense counsel to certify that they comply with standards, the Washington Association of Cities and Association of Municipal Attorneys opposed the rule in part because of the anticipated expense in reducing caseloads from the admitted 800 to 1,000 range of some of their members to the standard of 300.

Imagine if you had a loved one or respected colleague charged with a crime — whether it be shoplifting, drunk driving, possession of marijuana or a serious felony. You go to see a criminal defense lawyer who tells you, “I’ll be happy to take the case. I will work one hour or so for you.”

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