When people attend law school, they have a fairly distorted view of what lawyers actually do on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, when I was in law school, I thought I would spend all of my days in court, kind of like the lawyers I saw on television and in movies. In reality, the practice of law can be pretty boring sometimes, and in many instances, lawyers need to complete nonlegal work that does not require any kind of legal training. In many situations, lawyers should delegate more nonlegal work to nonlawyers so that attorneys can focus on the legal work at hand in a representation.
One of the main reasons why lawyers should give nonlegal tasks to nonlawyers is because other professionals may be better suited to handle certain parts of a representation than a lawyer. Attorneys often need to rely on accountants, private investigators, and other skilled individuals in order to best serve a client, and it is okay to assemble a team so that a client’s interests can be best served during a representation.
For instance, I once had a case in which I had to track down and depose a witness to an incident who moved out of town. I tried my best to hunt this person down on Google, public records searches, and all of the other resources I had available to me, and only after a great deal of effort was I able to track this person down. The next time I had to track someone down like this, I hired a private investigator to complete the leg work for me. The private investigator was able to easily find this person, and it is likely that the private investigator charged less than the billable time I spent on the matter. By using the services of another professional, I likely protected the client’s bottom line and avoided some headache on my end.
In some situations, lawyers should delegate nonlegal work to nonlawyers to establish boundaries and ensure that they are dealing with matters that are in the purview of legal counsel. Like many attorneys, every so often I will handle a real estate closing. Usually, a variety of professionals are involved with closings, including title people, brokers, banking professionals, and others. Often, clients will ask their attorneys to arrange matters that should properly be handled by brokers, such as scheduling walkthroughs and other on-the-ground information about the property. When I first started handling this line of work, I was much more likely to handle this work myself.
However, it is important to create boundaries, and delegate matters to brokers or other professionals who are more qualified to take on a task during a deal. I am sure many of us did not think we would be arguing about air conditioning cleaning and other matters when we decided to be lawyers, and only certain discreet matters in real estate transactions and other similar matters involve legal issues that should be handled by lawyers. It is important to set boundaries so that a lawyer’s time is not wasted on matters that could be handled by others and ensure that the professional that has the best skill in an area is handling a task.
Even within law firms, lawyers sometimes take it upon themselves to perform nonlegal tasks even though other professionals are available to assist lawyers with this work. This may be because lawyers know that they can bill for the time spent on such administrative tasks to clients, or there is no other work available to more junior lawyers so that more senior lawyers give junior lawyers chores that do not involve legal training in order to pass the time.
For instance, I once worked at a law firm that did not have much legal work for a period to keep the lawyers in our office busy. What ended up happening is that partners started hogging work that should have been performed by senior associates, and senior associates started hogging work that should have been performed by junior associates. As a result, there was little left for junior associates to do other than administrative tasks. During this time, I spent days pulling and printing cases cited in an appellate brief we filed so the partner would have binders of cases with him at oral argument. Of course, these binders were never consulted once. I also did other administrative tasks that a paralegal or a legal secretary could have performed, and probably in a more efficient manner. All the while, our clients were at least partially billed for time that could have been completed by staff that had a much lower billable hour rate.
All told, lawyers often need to complete work that does not require a legal education, but attorneys should minimize such tasks as much as possible. This allows lawyers to be more efficient and bring more value to their clients.
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 email@example.com.
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