In Which the TBA Gets Me To Talk About Money. Again.

About a month ago I was asked to take part in a survey regarding compensation rates for court appointed attorneys in Tennessee. This week the Tennessee Bar Association released their findings, which you can view if you’re into such things here:

The results can be summed as follows.

• Of the 487 attorneys who completed the survey, 61% were in their first decade of practice.

• Attorneys working dependency and neglect or abuse cases (either as a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) or parent’s attorney) received almost as many appointments as those working criminal matters for adults.

• Fifty percent of those responding stated they hit the fee cap frequently for their court appointed cases. This was an extremely problematic area for GAL cases as those tend to take an immense amount of time, essentially lowering the paid rate to an attorney.

• Respondents spent an average of five hours gathering, preparing and submitting a fee claim per each appointed case.

• Seventy seven percent of attorneys responding said they don’t bother submitting a fee claim for appointed work. Thirteen percent of the time attorneys simply don’t bother submitting claims at all, likening the matters to pro bono representation.

• Almost a third of responding attorneys have stopped taking appointments. Eighty percent of those who stopped taking appointed cases said the rate of pay was a factor in not taking those cases.

Tennessee’s rate for court appointed compensation is currently $40 per hour out of court and $50 per hour in court–one of the lowest rates for compensation in the nation.  This seems like a princely sum to those making $7.25 per hour, but understand it’s not all profit.  Most of that money ends up going to pay for office space, utilities, CLEs, professional taxes, licensing fees, malpractice insurance, and more.  Furthermore, court appointed work is not guaranteed for any attorney.  In most dependency and neglect/abuse cases, work is handed to attorneys present at the courthouse on other matters.  Criminal cases go to the public defender first and then to attorneys present for other matters at the judge’s discretion.  In cities like Knoxville, where 3,000+ attorneys are commonplace, there may be a list used to circulate appointments.  Again, this is not an ideal situation as one is not guaranteed a steady case load.

Moreover, court appointed cases involve extremely demanding clientele.  It’s been said often that you don’t appreciate your case until you’ve got some “skin in the game,” and most attorneys don’t appreciate that view of the client when they’re solely taking appointed work.  Many appointed clients view their lawyer as “free” and treat him or her accordingly.  They run up large bills with phone calls asking about completely unrelated matters or simply to “vent” their frustration at being called a bad parent/person by the State.  They refuse to participate in discovery or simply do not show up for hearings.  They see their attorney’s advice as simply suggestions to be ignored as they please, and then wonder why their attorney becomes unsympathetic or unwilling to listen after their second arrest over similar matters keeping them in jail until trial.

Finally, dependency and neglect or abuse cases can reach upwards of a year in length or more.  Once the fee cap is reached (around $1,500 for these cases), the attorney is essentially performing all work pro bono from that point forward.  We don’t expect other professions with independent contractors to do work lasting over a year in length for $125 per month, and yet we rousingly tell attorneys it’s not only okay to do that–it’s an expected part of the job description.

The results of the TBA survey were not surprising to those of us in the profession–especially the part about how many attorneys are leaving appointed work for more emphasis on marketing and developing quality clientele.  It’s simply not viable for those in the profession to continue to take appointed work and make a living.  We like nice things and feeding our families too.  What will surprise me is if–and I strongly emphasize if–the Tennessee Bar Association does anything about this survey to actually increase the compensation rates for court appointed cases.

It’s one thing to talk about how little court appointed attorneys get paid.  It’s another thing to actually do something about it.


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