There is a growing cancer in criminal law.
It feeds on the corpus of a profession that was once populated by individual lawyers who defended those who were scorned by society. The rugged individualist who appeared to defend the accused was once a common sight in our profession. However, like the mom and pop hardware store, individual criminal defense lawyers are being driven out of business by the Home Depot equivalent of defense firms.
We are talking about the practice of COVERAGE.
COVERAGE means this: Take your average ticket defense law firm. With cases is almost every courthouse in Dade and Broward there is no way any single lawyer can appear everywhere at once. Nor is it economically possible for the Ticket Law Firm to employ the army of lawyers necessary to cover all their cases. So a system of coverage arose, where independent contractor-lawyers staked out their own territory like a pitbull guarding a bone. The Law Firm then gave the coverage lawyer the tickets for the week, and they were charged a small per/ticket fee.
There is nothing wrong with this system for tickets.
However, the system has spread to the point where we are told that it is now common for there to be several “coverage lawyers” for most misdemeanor calendars.
The principle is the same.
The Misdemeanor Law Firm floods the market with advertising and direct mailing to people who were arrested. The clients are charged a nominal fee for their case.
The Firm soon gets dozens of clients for every Monday trial calendar. Rather than defending the case in the normal manner, the Firm hires lawyers who will cover the misdemeanor cases for a per/case fee.
This system does a disservice to the client because the coverage lawyer does not have a file, does not have discovery, has not filed motions, and is generally unprepared to do anything other than seek a dismissal if the witnesses do not show, or enter a plea of guilty if the prosecution is ready for trial.
COSTCO COMES TO CRIMINAL LAW.
Nothing good can come of this. It demeans the practice of law, and it does not provide good low cost legal services to individuals who cannot otherwise afford it.
There is a marked difference between a prepared attorney and a warm body in a suit standing next to a client. For the most part, the coverage law firms and coverage attorneys only provide the latter.
The question is why are judges, mostly County Court Judges, allowing attorneys who have not filed a notice of appearance to appear in a case?
Now of course it is one thing to have a friend cover a case when a lawyer is ill or in trial. It is however, quite another matter to have a lawyer who is running a firm, and signing the pleadings to NEVER appear in court, and send lawyers that are not members of the firm and are not familiar with the cases.
Certain Bar Rules may apply here, including:
RULE 4-1.1 COMPETENCE: A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.
We know that several lawyers make their living from coverage.
We are not out to get them or cost them a job.
There should be some sort of resolution here.
Perhaps the Bar should set some guidelines, including the requirement that all clients sign a retainer agreement that clearly specifies that the attorney they are hiring will not be the attorney who appears in court.
But as it now stands, lawyers who engage in mass mailing, and offer cheap legal services and hire coverage lawyers, are turning the practice of criminal law into COTSCO. Our profession is demeaned by this, and the clients are not getting decent legal services.
See You In Court, ducking curses from coverage attorneys.