Associates can be responsible for drastically different amounts of files depending on the type of work the lawyer handles and what type of firm employs each lawyer. Attorneys in Biglaw might only work on a few larger matters since massive lawsuits or transactional matters can keep tons of lawyers busy for a while. At smaller shops, lawyers might be responsible for more matters since those matters do not require as much effort to manage. However, law firm managers should be careful when determining how many matters is too many for an associate to handle so that each lawyer can perform their best work and so that no billable opportunities are wasted.
When I was an associate in Biglaw, I did not really have primary responsibility over any matters. I worked on a few massive litigation matters, and partners would give me projects associated with those matters so that I could bill enough hours to satisfy expectations. When I left Biglaw, I had primary responsibility over the matters I handled. Our firm managed over a thousand files, and associates needed to take a hands-on approach toward managing all of those files.
When I started working at a midsize firm at which I had primary responsibility over matters, I initially only managed 25 cases. At the time, it seemed like a lot of files since I was not that experienced with aspects of litigation, and it was difficult to stay on top of all of the cases. As I got more experienced, the managing partner assigned more files to me throughout my time at the firm, and by the time I left that shop, I was managing 44 cases. I definitely had an easier time handling those 44 files at the end of my tenure at the firm than the 25 cases at the beginning, and the partner did a good job of ensuring that no one was overloaded with files.
However, I have heard horror stories of associates at firms that have too many files to handle, and that impacts the quality of work performed in those cases. Lawyers might handle too many files for a few reasons. Perhaps the main reason is that the shop simply does not have enough attorneys. Some law firms charge lower billable hour rates and just cannot hire enough people to handle files more effectively. As a result, the shop saturates all of the other associates with numerous files in the hopes that the associates will be able to churn out many billable hours from the files they have.
The other main reason why associates might have too many files is because managers simply do not understand how many files an attorney can reasonably handle. Partners at some firms only have minimal responsibility on files, or might only get involved in cases after they are scheduled for trial (which is somewhat rare) and accordingly, they simply might not know that associates are overburdened with files, and they might not be too efficient in handling the files to which they are assigned.
Of course, not every file is the same, and I once worked in a mass torts practice at which I was assigned hundreds of files. However, there was very little work to do on these files at any given time, so this was not a big deal. However, when it comes to run-of-the-mill litigation matters, such as those handled by insurance defense firms, associates should rarely be assigned more than 50 to 60 files. That amount of files ensures associates have a solid source of work, and associates can reasonably be expected to know the happenings in several dozen files.
However, I have heard of associates handling 90 or 100 run-of-the-mill litigation files, and in most circumstances, this is too much. Of course, some people might be really good at time management, and can in fact handle this load of files, but most people will struggle to manage this amount of files. Things will naturally be forgotten by the handling attorney if an associate is assigned this number of files since there is no way that an associate can keep all of those files straight when juggling all of the tasks attorneys handle in their jobs.
All told, law firms might think they are saving money by assigning one attorney numerous files, but this can actually hurt the firm. An associate might not have sufficient time to bill all of the hours that could be devoted to such files, and attorneys may perform worse work if they are assigned too many cases. Law firm managers need to consider efficiency and billable potential when selecting the number of files to assign each associate.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.