How I Got My Big Caseload

Someone asked me recently how we ("we," being public defenders) go about either choosing our cases or having them assigned to us.

I don't often write about the day-to-day mechanics of my job, but I thought this might be interesting enough, especially to law students wondering about how this whole thing works. (And, I had something else I wanted to write about, and thought this info was necessary first, so I'm seeing it as a lead in to a future post. Yes, as unorganzied as this whole thing appears, I'm thinking ahead.)

As a caveat, this is all pretty general (can you imagine how long this post would be if I decided to be specific?) and I'm sure that it varies quite a bit from office to office and city to city.

Every day, there are a few lawyers from the public defender's office assigned to arraignments - sometimes as few as three, sometimes as many as ten. The number depends on some system that may or may not exist that allows our bosses to have some idea how busy arraignments will be on any given day.

For sake of simplicity, let's just assume there are 3 attorneys assigned on a given day. Generally, they'll be of mixed experience levels - one very senior attorney who has tried all types of cases, one mid-level attorney who has mastered the world of misdemeanors and handles some less serious felonies, and one newbie who just handles misdemeanors.

We'll sit together at a desk in the courtroom and discuss the D.A.'s hair or funny nicknames for a mean judge until a court officer comes and drops a handful of cases on our desk. Generally, it's about 10 cases at a time, because they give us the paperwork as they bring the "bodies" to the pen behind the courtroom.

One person will grab the pile and do a basic triage of the cases. (Yes, I often do it, because I like to be in control of things.) If there's a rape or murder, something along those lines, you're going to hand it directly to the most senior attorney. If there's something like, let's say a burglary, you're going to hand it to the mid-level attorney. And if there's something like a petit larceny, you're going to hand it to the newbie.

But this isn't set in stone. For example, as a mid-level attorney, if I don't feel comfortable with a case someone hands to me - because I'm not experienced enough to handle the particular case - I'll leave it on the pile on the desk. Maybe later in the shift the more senior attorney will pick it up, or maybe we'll work on it together.

Now, some shifts there aren't many serious cases and every case is an easy misdemeanor. Then, everyone just picks up the cases more or less equally. In that situation, it's considered impolite to "shop" the cases - to sort through them and say, "I don't want the drunk driving, those cases are a pain in the ass, I'll take this petit larceny instead. I don't want this Chinese guy because I'll spend the next few months waiting for the interpreter, I'll take this guy 'William Smith' instead." Because then, obviously, you're just screwing your colleagues who are going to have to pick up the cases that you're leaving on the desk. So, in that instance everyone will just pick up the top three or four cases off the pile.

Likewise, I've also worked shifts as the newbie lawyer where every case that came in was a rape, murder or kidnapping (or some combination thereof). As the newbie, I just took every misdemeanor that came in. Some of the more senior attorneys only did one or two cases that day - it can take a while to prepare a murder case for arraignment, while I probably did 20 misdemeanors, but that's still considered fair.

Once I'm done with those cases (either after the interview or after the interview and the arraignment, depending on the pace of the judge), I'll return to the pile(where the court officers keep dropping more cases) and pick up a few more. And this continues throughout the shift.

And that is, very generally, how cases get assigned to me. And those will be my cases from arraignment until plea, trial, or dismissal. This is called "vertical representation" meaning the same attorney represents the same client all the way up to, and including the trial. Some public defenders offices may still use "horizontal representation," that is when one public defender meets you and does the arraignment but they're only assigned to arraignments so on your next court date, let's say for a preliminary hearing, you get a different public defender who, for example, only does preliminary hearings. I think that most PD's offices have moved away from "horizontal representation" because it means, among other things, that the client doesn't know "his" lawyer is if he needs to call someone between court dates.

There are a few other ways that I get assigned cases.

First, are "walk-ins." That's when someone - SOMEONE SMART WHO UNDERSTANDS THE VALUE OF HAVING A LAWYER - will walk in or call our office to say, "Hey, I heard the police are looking for me, I guess I have to turn myself in, but I thought I should talk to a lawyer first." Or, something along those lines. Then my boss will walk into my office and say, "Hey Blonde, there's this guy on the phone..." and that case will become mine. Maybe I'll have to take him to turn himself in, or to be in a line-up, and then, eventually I'll go to arraignments even though it's not my scheduled day, to arraign the case. Why me and why not someone else? Who knows. Maybe the boss is just looking for someone who is sitting at their desk at the time. Maybe they have an idea of who has a higher caseload and will give it to someone who has a lower caseload. Maybe they want to stick it to a lawyer who is a pain in the ass, give him or her more work to do. Or maybe they go to the lawyer who is the least likely to complain about getting more work. (I suspect I'm in that "least likely to complain" category.)

Another way I get assigned a case is when a client that I already have on an open matter gets rearrested. Even if someone else arraigns it, all of my client's new cases will be reassigned to me. Again, this is for continuity and it makes sense that they lawyer who has the longest standing relationship with the client should continue the representation.

And, finally, I ocasionally get cases assigned to me completely randomly. For instance, "Hey Blonde, Joe is retiring, you're going to take over this case."

And that is how I get my cases. Now, how don't I get my cases?

Often a client will call me and say something like, "Hey, you were my lawyer last year. My cousin got arrested today and my family wants to hire you." While I'm flattered, I'm not for hire.

Similarly, if a former client calls and wants to get their case assigned to me, I have to say no. I tell the caller that the public defender system is a "luck of the draw" system, and I assure them their cases will be assigned to someone who is more than capable. I also tell them that they can have their new lawyer call me - I can vouch for the fact that they made all of their court dates and appointments, or that I previously spoke to their family, have been to their address, have confirmed community ties. Overall, the view of my office is that it sets a bad precedent to take your former clients' cases when you don't have to. Eventually there could be questions about why you took one previous client's cases and not other's, and it sends a bad message of, "Yes, you're right, I am the only capable public defender here, so I'll do you a favor and help you." It can also lead to a weird lawyer/client dynamic where the client feels that you're pretty much on retainer to be his lawyer, and that's just not the way it works.

So, that's how a public defender get her (many) cases. Any questions?


  1. It was quite different in my county when I was a PD. There were misdemeanor attys and felony attys. Mis-d attys started out assigned to certain town courts and handled all misdemanors that came into those courts that were assigned to our office.

    The next level was city court, and you were assigned to a certainjudge and handled all misdemeanors assigned to the PDs before that judge.

    In town court you also handled the initial preliminary hearing for non-violent felonies.

    In city court you were assigned for about one month (twice per year during a less busy part with your judge) to handle the prelim. hearings of non-violent felonies.

    Generally, misdemeanor PDs had a caseload of about 600 cases. Town court attys always had a aseload of that number. City court attys picked up about 600 cases in one month and then spent the next 6 months getting rid of them all with the same judge.

    The next step was non-violent felonies. Then after that you were promoted to violent felonies.

    Sounds a bit different than your office. Maybe mine was a bit bigger? I've hard of outlying counties having a process similar to yours. Our office had about 55 PDs. Rochester, NY and surrounding suburbs has a population of about 1 million.

    It's interesting to hear how another office works.

  2. I should clarify that misdemeanor PDs had a caseload on average of about 1200 cases per year, which averages out to about 600 at any given time. Felony PDs had about 40 felonies at any given time. Needless to say, we had a pretty high caseload, all things considered. I wouldn't be surprised if it was even higher now, given all the budget cuts that have occurred with this administration.

  3. This was a very informative post. Thanks for the insight!

  4. Perhaps I should do my own post on this since my experience in getting cases is so completely different.

  5. This is pretty awesome. Thanks for enlightening this big-firm corporate whore.

    When I was in law school, my "Big Brother" who was assigned to me worked for the PD. He ended up going to them after graduation, even though he was at the top of his class and had his pick of the law firm jobs. I was always so proud of him for doing that.

  6. Fascinating! Can you get me a job in your office, please?

    Like Audacity's, my experience was a little different, but I wasn't a lawyer -- just an intern. I'll plan to post something about how our office worked, just to add to the information, but I have a question about the walk-ins: How can you do walk-ins? Isn't there an income requirement? Do you do the income analysis when they call or walk in, or do you just assume they qualify and go ahead and represent them until you find out otherwise? And what about people who aren't in custody? Does the process work the same for them except that instead of being in lockup they're just sitting in court waiting for their case to be called?