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Finding Your Firm’s Optimal Caseload

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by Ryan Anderson

on 22 August, 2018

Tools to find the optimal legal caseload

You need a full caseload to ensure your law firm’s financial stability and long-term growth. But you also owe each client adequate time to represent them fully. On top of that, you need time for long-term planning and marketing as you design the law firm of your future.

So what’s the perfect caseload level?

Unfortunately, I can’t give you a magic number for optimal caseloads. Successful attorneys answer anywhere from 10 a year to 500 at one time. The question just has too many variables, beginning with the basics of practice area, firm size, and location.

But there are signs and symptoms of a caseload that is too high or too low, if you know what to look for.

The ancient Greeks told the cautionary tale of Procrustes, who would try to make all of his guests fit into his iron bed, even if that meant stretching them out or amputating limbs.

When it comes to caseloads, we shouldn’t stretch ourselves out or cut ourselves down to some arbitrary number. It’s far more important to recognize the signs of being too far above or below your caseload capacity at any given time.

5 Signs your caseload is too high:

More often than not, young attorneys are fighting tooth-and-nail for every case they can get their hands on. But for those with a successful marketing plan and high client satisfaction, the moment may come when you’ve got too much of a good thing.

Watch for these signs that you or a colleague has taken on too many cases. They may indicate the need to better manage your practice for improved efficiency — or to even turn down some potential clients.

1. More Mistakes

From simple typos to misplaced files and forgotten deadlines, mistakes litter the lives of the overworked. The legal industry isn’t forgiving of mistakes; a significant one can even mean malpractice.

Track the number of deadlines you miss with regular reports. Pay attention to your slip-ups, because they’re telling you something important. Sometimes it just means you’re not spending enough time on each case. But stress from overwork can also bring about more serious issues like memory impairment, multiplying the likelihood of errors.

2. Less Focus

When you have too many cases, you’re constantly torn between competing obligations.

Or worse: you’re perpetually turning around to put out fires.

Or, even worse: your very capacity to focus disintegrates, and your brain feels like grey goop.

Researchers have found that working too many hours can erode your stream of attention. Harvard Business Review summarizes the lack of focus that comes from overwork: “Keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”

If you find your focus straying, or discover you’re increasingly susceptible to distractions, it may be your caseload that is the culprit.

3. More Sick Days

When you push yourself beyond your limits, your body will find its own ways to speak up.

Too much stress wrecks your immune system, making it more likely that you’ll fall prey to any germ that comes your way. Specific illnesses linked to overwork include: headaches, ulcers, impaired sleep, lower back pain, colitis, hypertension, and chronic fatigue. Chronic overworkers can see more serious problems, such as depression, alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, and strokes.

To catch early warnings of overwork, get regular check-ups and track your health. Increased sick days (or days when you’re unwell but work anyway) can be an indication that you’re operating at too high a caseload.

4. Sudden Personality Changes

Did your patience with others disappear? Are you suddenly irritable and resentful? Do you find yourself uncharacteristically filled with rage?

It could be the workload.

Another behavioral change that speaks to overwork is increased conflict with others. Conversely, some workers will try to cope by becoming detached. They stay at their desks, they fail to build or maintain friendships in the workplace, and in general they try to cut out as many interactions with coworkers or clients as possible.

5. Wheel-spinning

People push themselves beyond their natural limits because they believe their sacrifice will benefit the firm and their future. But the sad irony of overwork is that it’s not even good for the organization. As you push yourself harder, your work is more likely to be wheel-spinning and distracted busy-work, divorced from the intentional values and goals of your practice.

From the inside, you might feel like a hamster in a wheel. You work harder and harder, but fail to move forward or find any real sense of accomplishment. This is often accompanied by a deepening cynicism, sense of hopelessness, or belief that nothing matters.

Before you dive off the deep end of nihilism, check your caseload.

Being too busy can strain your practice

Overwork doesn’t only wreck your own life. The large western law firm Godfrey and Johnson take pains to steer their attorneys away from their ‘maximum caseload’ and toward their ‘optimal caseload.’ Their explanation demonstrates how deeply counter-productive outsized caseloads can be:

“Lawyers who are too busy are not as good at communicating regularly with clients; they do not develop brilliant strategies; they do not file optional (but sometimes outcome-determining) motions; they fail to take necessary depositions; they are reluctant to [sic] deep legal research; they miss key points or bits of evidence; they forget to hire necessary experts; they tend to forget deadlines or leave too little time to prepare essential documents; they sound and appear rushed and worn out and therefore lose client confidence; the quality of their writing suffers; they become depressed and get on the nerves of their co-workers, causing a spreading morale problem in the firm. This can lead to a snowball effect which, in turn, can cause the lawyer’s ethical standards to drop with the application of ‘situational ethics,’ or dishonest reporting, and a host of other problems. Drug abuse and financial irregularities often follow, neither of which are permitted in this firm.”

How to make a higher caseload sustainable:

If you find you suffer from the problems above, you can always reduce your caseload. But what if you need that higher load for financial stability? What if you would appreciate less work, but can’t turn away the potential clients who deserve their day in court?

Before trimming your work down, you might try to swing your optimal caseload upward with a few tools and practices. The suggestions below can reduce busywork, streamline activity, and increase your personal capacity, to allow you to safely and productively handle more cases.

Automate! – The greatest tool for the modern lawyer might be law firm automation. Case management systems can take over much of your paperwork, data entry, and management tasks, allowing you to focus on being a lawyer.

Manage away from emergencies

Practice management tools can keep you a few steps ahead of deadlines. When you fall into multiple crunch times, your work suffers, your efficiency falters, and you’re constantly putting out fires.

Tools to reduce emergencies include smart task lists, linked calendars, automatic deadline reminders, and regular reports that give you a broader view of upcoming needs before they become emergencies.

Hire adequate support staff

Some attorneys find that bringing on a skilled paralegal or a virtual receptionist can dramatically expand their caseload horizons. Beyond that, there are tools that allow you to track individual productivity across your legal team.

Attend to your personal life

Address personal issues before they become catastrophes. If you ignore your personal life long enough, it will eventually proliferate with problems that affect your professional life. You’ll find that you tumble into the negative behaviors listed above even with lower caseloads.

On the other hand, when you give time and attention to your friends and loved ones, they can in turn feed you the energy you need to become a better attorney.

Maintain a good flow

Positive psychologists describe the ‘flow’ state as a key part of satisfying work. Flow happens when we come up against challenges but are able to surmount with practice, attention, and effort.

We can think of a similar principle in finding our practice ‘flow.’ We want enough cases to keep us on our toes, growing and learning new skills, and bringing sustainable growth to our practice. But we don’t want to take on so much that we become destructive or stuck.

Our ideal caseloads can change dramatically as we learn new practice skills and technologies, or go through different life stages. But as we pay attention to our natural positive and negative responses to our workloads, we can adjust our practice levels before disaster strikes.