It starts right at the beginning. An attorney who specializes in high net worth or high-income divorces will have a computerized practice management system (such as Time Matters, Clio, Atticus, etc.) which helps them keep everything on track in terms of their client’s particular case. They’ll have paralegals dedicated to their case that have a relatively low caseload.
In my firm, for example, although I’m a solo practitioner, I have two full-time paralegals – each with a caseload of approximately 30 to 35 cases. That means my paralegals can stay on top of the cases to better present the case for settlement or trial. In addition, my office has a legal secretary whose job is to answer the phones and do administrative tasks around the office. In turn, that frees up the paralegals to concentrate on the grunt work of the cases.
Now, if a solo practitioner or a relatively small firm only has one employee working for them, and they are a jack of all trades (i.e., doing a little bit of everything), then his/her paralegal or legal assistant isn’t going to have enough time to adequately prepare a case – as compared to an attorney who has either one or two paralegals that concentrate on paralegal work.
I think that it’s a matter of asking any potential attorney about their caseload. How many cases do you currently have? How many paralegals do you have dedicated to you? These questions also apply if you go to a big firm. It’s a mistaken assumption to believe that if you have a high income or high net worth case, you need to hire a firm with 100+ lawyers in a gleaming office tower in Manhattan or Westchester.
Here’s the problem with that belief: In an area of law that is done by the billable hours, such as divorce and family law, every attorney will have to have their own caseload in order for any firm to afford the rent which comes with a luxury office building. With family law, unless the attorney has a caseload of 50, 60, 70 cases, one would really wonder how that firm is able to make ends meet if they’re specializing in divorce and family law. And going back to the large firm – if you hire a large law firm with 100 or 200 lawyers, each lawyer is going to have their own caseload of 50, 60, 70 cases. Consequently, that caseload is comparable to a solo practitioner’s caseload.
That’s also something you want to ask your potential attorney. Do they specialize? Are they concentrated on one area of law or at most two or three areas of the law? Or, are they a jack of all trades? For a high income and high net worth case, you want to make sure your attorney is a specialist who concentrates their practice in divorce and family law. Maybe they do one or two other areas of law, but the other areas are a relatively small percentage of their overall caseload. The vast majority of their cases, perhaps 70%, 80%, 90%, or 100% of their caseload, should be divorce and family law.
In other words, on caseload alone, there is generally no advantage in hiring a large law firm as opposed to a small law firm or solo practitioner. In reality, you want to go further and ask any particular attorney – whether they’re a solo practitioner, a small firm, or a 500-attorney firm: What is your caseload? Do you have a dedicated paralegal? If so, what is that paralegal’s caseload? Some law firms that have a 100 or more attorneys will make it seem as if they’re bringing their entire firm to concentrate on your case if you hire them. That’s not the way it works. Once you are out the door, your file goes into one attorney’s office, and s/he is the sole, dedicated attorney to the case. Very rarely, will you have a case where two attorneys will be working equally on the case.
Also, the paralegals in the much bigger firms may not have a caseload that is less than the caseload of a paralegals in small firms (or solo practitioners). For instance, I know one firm in particular that has a number of paralegals who number about half the amount of attorneys – consequently, each paralegal will have at least twice as many, if not three times as many cases as the particular attorney. Thus, if an attorney has a caseload of 60 or 70 cases, one paralegal in that firm will have a caseload of 100-150+ cases.
If the attorney or their paralegal is overwhelmed with cases – and you have a high income or high net worth case – the time that firm can devote to preparing your case may not be sufficient. If you have a relatively complex issue, it will take time to sift through all the documents that are going to be involved in your case (e.g., all the years of financial records from various accounts), and then to be able to formulate a settlement proposal or prepare the case for trial requires dedication.
At the end of the day, if the attorney has 80+ cases and their paralegal has 2-3 times that many cases, or they don’t even have a paralegal dedicated to your case, they’re just not going to be able to devote as much time to preparing your case properly. Those are some of the questions you should be asking your potential attorney whether they are a solo practitioner, a small firm, or an associate or partner of a firm that has 500 or more attorneys.
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