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Standard 2.4 on Stewardship of Human Resources

Standard 2.3 | Table of Contents |  Standard 2.5


A legal aid organization should assign and manage cases and individual workloads for practitioners and other staff to promote high-quality representation and legal work.


General Considerations

To ensure high-quality representation and legal work, the organization should have lawyers in management positions assign cases and other legal work to those individuals who are authorized and best able to handle them. In controlling workloads and assigning cases, these managers should consider, among other things, the individual's available time, experience, and substantive expertise. Managers should provide necessary oversight and caseload management, consistent with their and other practitioners' ethical obligations.

Given limited resources, a legal aid organization also faces the tension among its ongoing responsibilities to existing clients, the demand for service from new applicants, and the fundamental obligation to address the overall needs of the communities it serves. Some organizations or their funding sources place an emphasis on the numbers of clients served or the number of cases closed. Others emphasize results, including the number of persons who benefit from the representation or the impact of the legal work on the communities served as a whole. Each organization needs to develop a policy for legal work management that is first and foremost consistent with practitioners' obligations under applicable professional conduct rules and that also strives to reach an appropriate balance between the resources allocated to service to individual clients and resources allocated to work designed to have a broader impact on the client communities served by the organization. The appropriate balance is a function of the organization's mission and its obligations to its funding sources, but all full-service organizations should achieve a balance that ensures the overall needs of the communities are met, including the needs both of individual clients and of the communities it serves as a whole.

All work of a legal aid organization should be undertaken with the intention of obtaining meaningful results, and the organization's policies should help it guard against the temptation to emphasize the production of case numbers. The organization's policies and systems to allocate practitioners' time and resources should also protect staff from being overwhelmed by the press of ongoing representation and should permit them to undertake work that will have a broader impact on client communities as a whole.

Considerations Regarding Case and Workload Assignment

The availability of adequate time to represent the client competently. Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1 and 1.3 provide that lawyers must ensure devote adequate time to the representation, possess requisite knowledge and skill to handle a matter, and act diligently.Practitioners also have a responsibility to reject cases unless they are able to meet their ethical obligations, including that of competence. In making case assignments, the lawyer manager should take into consideration the amount of time a practitioner has available and will need to handle the case competently.

Not every applicant for services will necessarily receive full representation from a legal aid organization. Many organizations offer applicants limited-scope representation in the form of advice or brief service or non-representational assistance The organization's practitioners and other staff members who provide such limited-scope assistance must nevertheless be able to devote adequate time to the work to ensure that the assistance is provided in a competent and timely manner. 

The practitioner's level of experience, training, and expertise. Decisions regarding assignment of cases to staff practitioners should take into account the level of their training and experience and their individual caseloads. Practitioners should be encouraged to work deliberately and carefully, and the number of cases and other legal work assigned to them should allow for thorough preparation at all stages. Each case undertaken by a less experienced practitioner provides an opportunity to expand professional skills, and adequate time for development of good work habits should be factored into the workload. Whenever possible, the organization should make training opportunities available to increase its practitioners' level of practical skills and substantive expertise. Policies should be in place to ensure compliance with continuing education requirements, and where failure to abide by those requirements may result in discipline or administrative suspension. As practitioners' skill levels and knowledge increase, they should be able to efficiently handle an increasing number of cases and legal work of greater complexity.

The status and complexity of pending cases. In managing case assignments and workload for staff practitioners, the organization should take into consideration the time required to handle each case competently. The organization should evaluate the status and complexity of its practitioners' pending cases to predict time demands of the existing caseload, including cases that are routine in nature and those that are more complex and involve full representation. A case management system and an efficient case planning process will facilitate this evaluation. 

In managing their practitioners' workloads, the organization should consider the following factors: The number and types of cases being handled by a practitioner; the number of cases being handled by a practitioner that require a substantial time commitment, including those in litigation, particularly where there is extensive discovery or where a trial has been set; cases on appeal; other complex cases on behalf of clients; and the predicted dates for completion of each major step in more complex cases. 

Review of practitioners' workloads will identify their future time commitments and capacity to accept new assignments. It should also enable supervisors to identify patterns that require adjustments in case assignments and to evaluate the progress on open cases.

Non-representational legal work and other responsibilities. Some practitioners have responsibility for training, administrative, and supervisory duties. Others have responsibility for the organization's non-representational work, including such activities as running clinics to provide legal information, providing community legal education, and participating in special projects of benefit to client communities. In addition, some practitioners work on collaborative projects and the planning with others in the state and regional delivery systems of which the organization is a part.All such activities may require substantial time commitments that should be considered when assignments are made to ensure that practitioners have adequate time for such essential activities in addition to their case work.

The organization's capacity for support. The nature and amount of legal work a practitioner can handle effectively is affected by the support that is available both through organizational resources and through outside sources of assistance. Wherever possible, organizations should have on staff substantive law specialists and litigation directors who can co-counsel and provide other assistance to improve the productivity of individual practitioners. 

The organization should encourage its practitioners to participate in online communities and with groups that can provide substantive support and to take full advantage of research and support resources that are available online while also being mindful of ethical concerns such as client confidentiality. The organization should also consider the availability of research and co-counseling assistance from outside the organization through private firms, the organized bar, state and national support centers, and other public interest organizations that can provide support in substantive legal areas.

Other relevant factors that affect the performance of legal work. Other factors related to the environment in which the organization and its practitioners operate will influence the amount of time required to represent each client. Factors such as time required for travel and court practices, as well as docket congestion, may increase the time needed to conduct a case. Rural and urban practices have different logistical problems. Each organization should consider the impact of its particular environment in managing workloads. Organizations should also use technology for remote supervision of staff across offices in order to enable and support more collaborative efforts between staff in different offices, and to expand the geographic reach of staff. The organization should also consider these logistical factors in the design of a delivery system.

Effective utilization of technology can help make efficient use of a practitioner’s time, particularly when using remote services to represent clients who live a far distance from the practitioner, office, or court.Finally and not least, organizations should anticipate and provide ongoing support to staff in order to avoid or mitigate the stress, secondary trauma, and burnout that can accompany many areas of legal aid work with clients at risk of or experiencing loss and emotional injury.

Workload management for non-practitioner staff. In addition to attorneys and paraprofessionals authorized to provide legal services directly to clients, organizations employ a variety of other staff whose workload is influenced by client need and whose time is devoted to working with applicants for service, clients, and members of the client communities. These staff members may include intake workers, hotline personnel, pro bono coordinators, outreach workers, community educators, social workers, and others. Organizations should ensure that the workload of these staff members is assigned on the basis of appropriate criteria including their available time, level of experience, training and expertise, the complexity of their assigned tasks, and the time needed to complete administrative and other organization responsibilities.