Starting on July 1, the shadowy and murky world of traffic attorneys became subject of blog discussion, fueled primarily by Judge Shelly Schwartz's criticisms of the ticket firms and their use of contract lawyers in court. Yesterday we printed Schwartz's primary complaints. We had earlier received an email from an attorney who wanted a front page blog response. Before we get to that, we re-print one comment yesterday that appears to be a knowledgeable criticism of Judge Schwartz (he is of course invited to respond):
In driver license cases, most judges in the building impose the standard $358 court costs. Shelly adds $525 for a total of $883, plus $250-$500 fines plus court costs plus high risk 30-hour traffic school in companion infractions even when they are non-moving such as no license plate or license not carriend or exhibited. That's unconscionable and hurts mainly the poor pro se defendants because the represented defendants will not plead guilty at arraignment as the unrepresented usually do. Those defendants could pay outstanding tickets and reinstate their licenses with far less money than it takes to pay Shelly's fines.
An attorney who hovers on the edge of this miasma has asked to respond:
You are correct and you are incorrect and here's the inside scoop.
First: I am not a traffic lawyer. I am one step up the ladder. I have a primarily misdemeanor and felony business. I handle the county court cases the traffic firms don't (DUI, Reckless, LSA) and the felony cases they can't.
The traffic business evolved from the work of one attorney, and then another, and then another, until there were dozens of firms competing for the same $69.00 ticket. How lucrative can it be? One well known firm had 20,000 OPEN cases when I saw their audit in the end of 2008. You do the math.
Here's what happens: Client's get tickets. They don't want to go to court. They don't want to even go to the lawyer's office. If they do answer an advertisement they received, they end up in one of a half dozen or so satellite offices the large traffic firm has (or on the phone with them). It is true that the client is then seen (or spoken to) by an experienced secretary who will give them the parameters of the case- what the possible sentences are and help them fill out a plea of absentia if they never want to appear in court. Most offices have one lawyer on the premises most of the time to handle more detailed questions.
I think Judge Schwartz would agree 99% of those cases go smoothly in court.
Here's the other 1-2%. The client is a problem client. Wants a jury trial before the Supreme Court on the running a stop sign. Being a problem client, they only want to pay $49.00 to have a team of top lawyers represent them.
I would suggest that the fault here is mostly the clients'. You get what you pay for. My firm will handle their stop sign case, but its going to cost almost a thousand dollars to have my assistant go to the scene with them, get pictures, do a diagram, and have me show up to try it.
So back to the 99% of the cases. When the ticket firms get the infraction case, they need to have every court and every ticket calendar in Dade and Broward covered. Do they employ dozens of attorneys to do this? Of course not. It's not economically feasible.
Once the ticket firms sprung up, the next economic necessity were the coverage or contract lawyers. They are a firmless group of nomads who get paid per case- usually ten bucks or so. They make camp in a courtroom or a small courthouse and they cover all the cases firm A has on the calendar.
But the analysis is not done. Because let's say firm A employs attorney X and Firm B employs attorney Y at the same courthouse. or courtrooms. Being of the same nomadic family, X and Y get together every morning and see what cases their firms have. Then X goes to courtroom 1 and Y goes to courtroom 2 and they cover the business for the traffic firms and X and Y work out what they're due and bill their respective firms.
That's a simplified explanation of what happens among dozens of ticket firms and dozens of nomadic ticket lawyers every morning.
And it works. The ticket lawyers do a good job. They spot the incorrectly written tickets. They know the cops who have faulty speed radars, and when they can't win, they argue for decent results. Occasionally the problem client shows up and what Judge Schwartz is writing about occurs.
But here's the problem Judge Schwartz does not recognize- The practice of law has evolved from the time he had his shingle out. Like it or not. The police write hundreds of thousands of tickets because their departments and municipalities make money. The ticket firms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailing and marketing. The ticket lawyers, with virtually no overhead or headaches are driving Mercedes and feeding their families. In his day, I am sure people laid a couple of grand on Shelly to show up in County Court and handle their kid's careless driving. But today they can get virtually the same defense, by an experienced lawyer who does a hundred Careless Drivings month, for $150.00 or so. They have the choice to hire me or hire the ticket firms, but usually the issue comes down to money.
It is admittedly "drive -thru McDonalds" type of law. But it has to be that way. The numbers (tickets, clients, firms, lawyers) are way too high and the economics of the market place have created this environment. It will never be like it was in the days Judge Schwartz fondly remembers. The economics of law has evolved.
Judge Schwartz is wrong, and the clients are wrong, if they expect to pay $69.00 and get a high priced individually tailored legal defense. The client needs to know they get what they pay for. When I see my GP doctor, he has his Physician's Assistant spend 20 minutes with me, then he comes in for 3 minutes , tells me to eat less, lower my cholesterol and blood pressure, writes the scripts and leaves. If I want more personal service than my insurance will pay for, I am free to spend 5K a year on a "concierge medical practice." Until then, I get what I pay for. Why should a client spending $69.00 on a ticket expect anything different?
Remember-these are civil INFRACTIONS not criminal cases. But the practice has spread to criminal cases. Those ticket firms are my bread and butter. They spend on advertising and when the DUI or Reckless comes in they hire me- at my price (somewhat reduced for their volume.) I meet the client. I open a file. We prepare the defense and I am entirely responsible for what happens.
Let me close by asking Judge Schwartz this- is what the ticket firms do any different then if Exxon-Mobile hires a Greenberg Traurig Partner who promptly puts two dozen first and second year associates to start discovery? The CEO of Exxon-Mobile doesn't know the second year associate taking a depo on his company's behalf, but the work gets done.
What Judge Schwartz fails to acknowledge (and he knows this because he sees the numbers) is that no lawyer can survive on hanging out a shingle. and waiting for the odd thousand dollar LSA to wander in while a firm that is advertising gets 200 LSAs at 250 per a month. He doesn't like what he sees. It's not what he did when he was practicing (and doing a very fine job) but the law hasn't changed- just the business of law.
Hang in there Shelly and let these guys do what they do. You're fighting a battle you can't win. In my opinion it's not a battle you should win. The marketplace evolved this system as an efficient capitalistic response to the vast numbers of infractions the police write.
We all luv ya.