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Do you feel like you’re always being pulled in different directions? Such is the life of most attorneys, between working with clients, growing a book of business, and dashing off to court.
It’s also the reason why the appearance attorney market has been booming.
Recent surveys show more than half of AmLaw firms and more than 30% of corporate legal departments make use of these attorneys.
If you’ve never heard of appearance attorneys, wonder whether use of this type of service would fit your needs or just want to know more about what to expect before diving in, then this guide is for you.
Read on to learn more about:
You’ll come away recognizing whether this practice model is right for your firm and the best ways to operationalize strategy.
First things first: Knowing whether the use of an appearance attorney is right for your firm begins with understanding their role. Recognizing appearance attorneys’ capabilities, common use cases, and potential benefits can help you identify value based on your firm’s particular circumstances.
Appearance attorneys are freelance attorneys who appear in court on behalf of a client’s primary attorney, or attorney of record. Among common roles for appearance counsel, they serve as supplemental legal counsel for when the primary attorney needs someone qualified to stand in their place. Appearance attorneys are available for a broad range of legal matters, from civil and criminal cases to issues involving bankruptcy hearings and arbitration. However, most law firms make use of appearance attorneys for more procedural matters, such as providing a judge with case updates or asking for a continuance.
Use of appearance attorneys can be particularly beneficial when the type of task or travel entailed does not make best use of the primary attorney’s time. It is this travel element that local and appearance counsel have in common, even though the professions are not the same.
Every state, city, and local jurisdiction has its own laws and regulations determining who can be an acceptable attorney to appear in court. Sometimes an attorney’s location is one of these considerations, and out-of-area law firms will choose to use local counsel or appearance counsel to comply.
Local legal counsel will typically follow a case from beginning to end and may work as part of the team with the hiring attorney or instead of the attorney on site.
In contrast, appearance counsel tends to serve on a more limited basis, standing in place of the hiring attorney for routine matters. Both types of attorneys can be a desirable choice for firms seeking someone familiar with the local court system and who possesses deep understanding of the due process of law for the area. Law firms that market their services nationwide or across multiple states often choose to work with local and appearance counsel depending on their type of need.
That said, there does not have to be a geographic consideration for the use of appearance attorneys. Sometimes, a hiring attorney may choose to work with appearance counsel in their own city simply because of schedule conflict or because attendance is not the ideal use of time. In these instances, the primary attorney will put the case together and hand it off to appearance counsel to present the case in court or make use of appearance counsel to complete administrative tasks, such as filing paperwork. Use of appearance counsel is helpful for attorneys who will still be the primary point of contact for their clients but just need a bit of help to carry the extra burden of routine legal tasks.
This diversity in roles naturally opens discussion to the many potential use cases for appearance attorneys.
Desire to optimize time management and allow for greater schedule flexibility are common reasons to work with appearance attorneys. It can be difficult for law firms to find talent that enables them to maximize their productivity and market new services to their clients. If a firm is having difficulty meeting its current obligations, it may struggle to scale up and increase its position in the marketplace. Hiring an appearance attorney is an easy way to increase a firm’s caseload capacity so staff can focus on serving and expanding the book of business.
Appearance attorneys function well as extensions of internal teams. They provide flexibility, as they have experience in a wide range of areas and come from all types of backgrounds. They also can perform a variety of tasks. They often will appear in court to complete procedural hearings, file legal documents, or provide a judge with updates on the status of a case. Depending on an appearance attorney’s background and experience, they can also settle a case based on a client’s instructions, make motions, or even attend mediations or trials.
That said, some instances are better suited for use of an appearance attorney than others.
Generally, your assignment is not a good candidate for an appearance attorney if:
(If you aren’t sure whether your assignment is the right fit, you can always talk with Docketly for a brief assessment.)
Firms weighing the use of appearance counsel will examine many areas, eyeing the potential value to overarching business strategy as well as day-to-day operations.
The business case for using appearance counsel will vary by firm. Some of the fundamental reasons for appearance counsel use include:
Fast and flexible coverage: Time is always in short supply for law firms. When an in-house attorney can’t find the time to make a routine court appearance, they will often rely on an appearance attorney for back up. This coverage often occurs with little notice.
Increased productivity: Handing off less complex legal tasks to an appearance attorney frees up in-house staff to focus on things that require deeper or sustained intellectual capital.
Of the 48% of law firms that use appearance attorneys,
62% report significant improvement in the firm’s performance.
Access to expertise: Familiarity with an area of law where the firm may be lacking or experience with local judges, courthouse personnel and customs are also instances where working with an appearance attorney is useful.
Let us dig into these issues a little more closely. The successful use of appearance attorneys often comes down to a matter of best spent time. When making a business case, firms should consider the following benefits.
Expanded Geographic Service Area
When looking at business impact associated with travel, do not look purely at savings in mileage or airfare. Also think about travel impact when determining which types of business to take. Use of appearance attorneys can enable expansion where frequent travel to court visits has been a past barrier. Appearance attorneys can even handle some complex and contested matters, such as a creditor’s right issue. So, in theory, the attorney of record doesn’t even have to live in the same state. In this way, a firm may use appearance attorneys to gain a foothold in a new geographic service area with plans for later expansion.
Legal work is driven by deadlines. It can be stressful to shift attention away from a big case to make an administrative appearance. Having the opportunity to hand off tasks enables in-house staff to be more focused and productive. Relying on an appearance attorney provides in-house counsel with more control over the day-to-day work of the law firm. It also provides them with more time for important client work instead of filing papers or updating status.
Using an appearance attorney from time to time is often more cost efficient than committing to a full-time resource. It can also give the firm access to a more experienced attorney than would otherwise be affordable.
In addition, some vendors will provide volume discounts or even cross-client discounts, meaning they may send one attorney to cover your hearing and the hearing of another firm and pass the volume discount to you.
In addition to examining time optimization, firms also should look at use of talent when assessing the value of hiring an appearance attorney. Effective human capital management depends on ensuring coverage is adequate, expertise aligns with job duty and staff satisfaction is an organizational consideration. Areas typically included in these discussions are the following.
How well does your firm handle when a court appearance moves up in schedule? When attorneys are pulled from high-value tasks to manage urgent administrative matters or cover routine status hearings, their talents aren’t put to best use. A network of appearance attorneys can serve as backup, so staff attorneys can work at the top of their skillset.
Delegation of Smaller Tasks
Similarly, staff attorneys should focus on a firm’s most important cases. Their time is best spent on cases contributing to reputation, profitability or growth. When it comes to more minor tasks, it often makes sense to rely on appearance attorneys. Such delegation also can create a more desirable work environment for staff
Sometimes, it is necessary to take on a client who lives [GU3] outside of the jurisdiction where the firm practices. This means having to get up to speed with the customs of an unfamiliar courthouse. As noted earlier, by working with an appearance attorney who lives in the area, the firm immediately gets the benefit of having someone on their team with local knowledge and pre-established relationships with the courthouse staff.
Another popular use as of late is hiring an appearance attorney for remote hearings. Travel obviously is not a consideration with on-line appearances. But many lawyers will use the option to avoid worry over spotty internet service, bandwidth issues, or lack of comfort with the technology. Also, remote appearances tend to be lengthier than the in-person ones and it is often difficult to attend several at the same time.
Many courts use standard remote appearance methods. Still, detailed knowledge of the local clerks’ workflows and preferences can be priceless. In many ways, remote hearings are well-suited for an appearance attorney.
Whatever the situation may be, hiring an appearance attorney for a remote hearing can help put anxieties at ease. An appearance attorney not only appears on the firm’s behalf, but they can troubleshoot technical issues as well.
Despite the many benefits that can be achieved with using appearance attorneys, there are some limitations to be aware of as well. Law firms typically must balance the following pros and cons when identifying true value proposition of their strategy.
At a minimum, an appearance attorney must possess a license to practice law in their jurisdiction. However, the depth of experience to be found among appearance attorneys can be surprising. You can often find legal veterans who can perform fundamental services for a fraction of what you pay your in-house lawyers.
Few attorneys like taking time out of their busy days to go to the courthouse to file papers or to make a brief appearance before a judge. Appearance attorneys provide an elegant solution for taking care of more administrative tasks. Freeing up valuable time for in-house staff aids satisfaction and enables them to focus on more meaningful work.
Reputable online appearance attorney vendors employ a variety of technological tools to help ensure both the firm and appearance attorney have all information needed to keep legal matters running smoothly. A vendor’s effective communication practices aided by these standardized forms and notifications can mean never having to track down an appearance attorney to determine how things went or to provide clarification on a report. Many firms find it is easy to assign the appearance, view the report, and move forward with next steps. Consistent turnaround is such a benefit that some vendor platforms will even include “mean time to report” as part of an appearance attorney’s profile.
There is no hard and fast rule about how often to use appearance attorneys to capture economies of scale. However, those organizations that have regular need for appearance attorneys receive greatest benefits. It’s not all about volume discounts either. Some companies will offer technology integrations to enable custom ordering and reporting for firms. Such integrations save time and reduce likelihood of manual errors. Firms also can denote “favorites” or screen out certain candidates as desired; over time, a firm can easily build a large stable of familiar, go-to support this way.
If you use a search engine to find appearance attorneys, you will be overwhelmed with the results. Also, it can be difficult to discern whether an appearance attorney is as professional as their website appears. Asking about vetting process should be part of the hiring process. Background screening, good standing verification, and performance reporting are important. You need to know that your legal matter will land in trusted, capable hands.
You will not want to use an appearance attorney to help see a case through from beginning to end. Your firm will still want to handle clients personally, and your in-house attorneys should be the face of your firm. Appearance attorneys are most useful for when your in-house staff is in the middle of a big case or for when you are wanting to grow your firm’s services. In these instances, having an appearance attorney to help pick up the slack can be invaluable.
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With an understanding of role, potential use cases, and common factors contributing to a business case, the next consideration for many law firms will be whether to directly hire an appearance attorney or work with a vendor.
Four areas are particularly important to pay attention to during this stage. The following are traditionally the greatest obstacles when directly hiring an appearance attorney.
Some firms already know someone in their professional networks who may be looking for extra work and can perform well. But these types of situations are rare. More common is the need for a firm to devote precious resources to recruiting appearance counsel and freelance attorneys. And if this effort to attract and vet prospects becomes too much of a burden, then the firm may negate the productivity savings it was hoping to achieve by outsourcing the work to begin with.
Also, it can be challenging to find someone in the desired location with the right experience. Certain niche areas of the law require specialized knowledge. Instead of going it alone, many firms find the better and more practical option is to work with a high-quality appearance attorney vendor. A vendor makes it easier to find skilled attorneys with specific practice experience.
What many don’t realize is that appearance attorneys are often courtroom veterans who are looking for work that allows them to slow down without entering a full retirement. A good appearance counsel vendor will let you set up experience requirements. In this way, you can gain immediate access to attorneys with decades of litigation experience.
Trying to do the requisite background checks, good standing verification, and performance monitoring takes time. Also, ensuring the attorney meets all necessary compliance requirements is essential. Taking on this vetting yourself can be expensive and burdensome.
Sending an in-house attorney to a jurisdiction that is hours away to file papers or ask for a continuance is not the most efficient use of time. Worse still is for the attorney to show up only to discover that the hearing has been rescheduled. This is where relying on the services of an appearance attorney who resides in the jurisdiction can be a big time-saver.
However, because an attorney says that they live in the jurisdiction does not necessarily make it so. Here, too, proper vetting is important. It will be necessary to verify that the appearance attorney resides in the desired location and can navigate the local court system. Trying to take on this vetting directly can be too burdensome, especially for firms with staff already stretched thin.
Using the services of a national appearance attorney network can mitigate many of the above challenges. By working with a company that has the time and resources to attract, vet, and retain top appearance attorney talent across locations, law firms can feel confident in their outsourcing arrangement. Below are some of the chief benefits of using nationwide appearance attorneys.
Firms often scramble to cover a court appearance, whether due to sudden illness, family emergencies, or car troubles. The size of your vendor will determine attorney availability. A large partner with many appearance attorneys is best able to provide quick coverage when needed. With the services of a nationwide appearance attorney network, firms can ensure cases get covered on short notice without creating needless disruption.
Adding support from appearance attorneys can be a first step to expanding beyond a firm’s core practice areas. Consider a practice that would like to do more work in collections—a business line based around volume—but is not fully staffed. Having an appearance attorney provide support for the new service or handle more of the administrative duties of certain areas of legal practice to free up internal attorneys can be a cost-effective way to start building enough volume to grow the practice.
As noted earlier, it can be tough to turn down a case simply because travel to a far-off jurisdiction will be too burdensome. Working with a nationwide appearance attorney provider makes many of these opportunities more feasible for the business, as it removes concern with losing hours or days to travel or having to quickly acclimate to an unfamiliar courthouse.
By shifting some of the workload to a resident freelance attorney who is familiar with the jurisdiction, a law firm can expand its service footprint with minimal drain on resources. Some vendors also make it easy to create “favorite” networks, which makes it easy to use the same appearance attorneys repeatedly. Having an experienced network that the firm frequently works with provides means to potentially grow business in the area going forward.
Attorneys often have many balls in the air at once. Every time they have to divert attention, it creates stress and reduces productivity. Shifting attention from a complicated legal matter to file a document at the courthouse disrupts focus.
When you work with an appearance attorney, staff can better attend to the more meaningful—and lucrative—aspects of their job. A nationwide vendor will usually be able to provide great diversity of expertise in their network, affording best capabilities for flexibility.
Some law firms may be reticent to work with appearance attorneys due to concerns about level of legal experience. Yet one of the biggest benefits to working with a network of national appearance attorneys is the ability to connect with talent from all sorts of backgrounds. Appearance attorneys come from all walks of life. Some are retired attorneys who just want to keep busy. Others may be long-time professionals who simply prefer working outside the daily grind of a law firm. The right appearance attorney vendor will provide transparency about experience and performance. A large, transparent, and vetted talent pool makes it easier than ever to find the right individual to meet a firm’s particular needs.
Burnout is a real and valid concern in the legal profession. As employees gain greater control in the market, many companies are seeking to improve recruitment and retention. Providing better balance is often part of this effort. Leveraging the use of outside appearance counsel can be a successful strategy for providing in-house staff with some much-needed breathing room during particularly hectic times.
Also, the use of appearance attorneys enables firms to redefine the role of their in-house attorneys. Instead of executing every mundane aspect of a case, the in-house attorneys manage it. This supervisory role is an attractive proposition to staff and future hires.
If your firm decides to work with a vendor rather than hiring an appearance attorney directly, a common question is whether it is better to use a hiring platform for appearance attorneys versus an attorney referral service.
Capabilities will vary. But know that an appearance attorney network will tend to focus chiefly on ensuring the best talent pool of on-demand workers over a broad geographic area. Their focus will be on building a partnership for repeated business. As such, they will seek to provide access to not only the right talent but also the data and information necessary to win cases and make well-informed business decisions. You’ll be more likely to find customizations and technologies that support the ongoing nature of the arrangement.
In contrast, referral services typically are about one-time placements or a series of one-time placements. They are more likely to be generalists concentrated around a narrow geographic location, sometimes handling recruitment and retention for long-term placements or even placements outside of the legal industry entirely. Regardless of how appearance attorney talent is sourced, it is always important to ask about how the vendor will ensure the relationship carries necessary safeguards, such as malpractice insurance coverage, background checks, and assurance of requisite experience to handle a legal proceeding.
As you begin connecting with vendors, it is helpful to be aware of common missteps when hiring appearance attorneys.
Whether you have worked with appearance attorneys in the past or are thinking about using an appearance attorney for the first time, always keep these six common mistakes in mind.
An appearance attorney is supposed to help your firm save time, not send you down the rabbit hole of sifting through search engine results. Instead of a generic “contract attorney near me” search, try to be more targeted around the needs of your firm, such as looking for a company that can provide someone with experience in your area of law. Also, make sure compliance meets your needs. For example, law firms that work with original creditors (banks) will have specific requirements regarding the qualifications of those who represent them.
Also, make sure that any site that looks promising can back up its claims. If the attorneys it represents are in good standing, then it should be able to provide support and detail its processes for verification.
Your firm has a reputation to uphold. As such, it can be tempting to handle every aspect of hiring an appearance attorney, from making sure they are in good standing with the bar to performing deep background checks. In doing so, you’re likely to spend more time trying to find an attorney than you would have if you had done the legal tasks yourself. A reputable online vendor can do all this work for you, helping to put any concerns you may have to rest.
The people at your firm have probably had to scramble under a tight deadline a time or two in their careers. It is also stressful to wait until the last minute to find an appearance attorney. Give your vendor plenty of time to find the right attorney for your firm’s needs. Once you become familiar with different appearance attorneys, you may find it useful to create a “preferred list” for use in times of urgency.
Preparation is essential to any legal matter. If you do not provide an appearance attorney with all the information they need, you are setting them up to fail. Be sure the appearance attorney knows your goals and progress to date. For example, an outline of what you want to accomplish and a brief case summary can go a long way toward ensuring a hearing goes smoothly. Also, you should provide all the documents the attorney may need for sufficient background. Some hiring platforms enable users to attach documents when making an assignment. This feature makes it easy to ensure the attorney can prepare for any eventuality.
To support security—and access—you should be able to upload documents into a secure platform. The appearance attorney should be able to easily view everything you have sent. This ability is so important that any reputable vendor should include it in the system.
Be sure the appearance attorney has a background in the legal matter at hand. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to hire an appearance attorney with a family law background for a collections matter.
Once you have determined your appearance attorney strategy, it is time to move from planning to operation. With a clearer understanding of role and potential benefits of using appearance attorneys—as well as missteps— focus can shift to hiring. Beware: All vendors are not created equal.
To ensure you have the proper support, it is helpful to keep a few questions in mind. Here are five questions to ensure that you find the right fit for your firm.
Your firm should not have to spend time vetting an appearance attorney. A reputable vendor will ensure that all attorneys have malpractice insurance, are in good standing with their state’s bar, and can pass a background check. Also, the vendor should perform regular audits of its attorney partners to ensure all information is up to date.
Your firm should look for a vendor with SOC 2 certification. To receive SOC 2 verification, a vendor must pass an audit that confirms its information systems are secure, readily available, processed with integrity, and can guarantee privacy and confidentiality.
It would be a disservice to have appearance counsel attend a hearing and then have them submit a report at their leisure. A reputable vendor should have systems in place that provide a standardized, detailed report of the hearing within 24 hours. Also, ask how your vendor handles unsatisfactory reports. Do you get to talk to a real person? Will your issues be resolved in a timely matter?
The vendor should supply appearance counsel with all the information they need to handle your firm’s legal needs. For example, appearance attorneys should have access to any necessary client contact information, special instructions, case history, prior hearing results, and a direct line of communication to the attorney of record for the case.
A vendor should take every step to avoid accidental no-shows or late arrivals. Make sure that your vendor provides automated reminders, a calendar app, real-time updates, smart controls, and a strict policy that will ban an attorney who fails to make a scheduled appearance.
Always inquire about worst-case scenarios. How will the vendor respond if the appearance attorney can’t show due to circumstances beyond control, such as a car accident or sudden illness? Will you still need to pay?
Also, be sure to work with a vendor that provides live, real-time support. You should be able to pick up a phone and access customer support directly if needed.
So now that you recognize which vendor will best meet your needs, focus can then shift to identifying the best candidate for your assignment. When selecting an appearance attorney, it can be helpful to first recognize the basic duties of the job and then move to questions that best assess suitability of the individual.
By law, appearance attorneys must meet certain core obligations. The most basic legal duties of an appearance attorney are:
Note: A professional appearance attorney network will provide much more detailed terms of service.
Insights around an attorney’s background will vary. Some vendors will have much more transparency than others around background. The ideal vendor will provide details such as how many hearings the attorney has covered, experience level, and hearing outcomes. An optimal vendor also will have processes to drive quality, such as a rating system or the ability to make it easy for repeat work as preferred attorneys. These built-in quality controls help provide confidence in the pool at large.
Once baseline trust is established, you can then begin to screen and narrow your selections to optimal candidates at the individual level. Here, it helps to have certain vetting criteria in mind beforehand.
The following five questions should be included in your selection process. Also, keep in mind that you should work only with those vendors who provide full transparency and control over who will appear on your behalf.
An appearance attorney who is under investigation or has already had disciplinary action taken against them could do more harm than good. As such, it is important to always ensure that the appearance attorney is in good standing. A reputable appearance attorney provider will have this information readily available. The vendor also will have processes ensuring the information is updated regularly in all states where the attorney is licensed to practice.
Always make sure your firm will be covered should an appearance attorney happen to become the subject of a malpractice claim. Keep in mind that even if a claim is without merit, an insurance provider could offer a settlement that could increase the firm’s premiums.
A reputable appearance attorney provider will validate that all attorneys on their platform are appropriately insured and provide an umbrella policy, which can simplify the audit process and offers additional peace of mind.
When working with someone new, particularly when it comes to important legal matters, always keep an eye out for any red flags. A professional appearance attorney provider should make background checks a required part of their process and provide transparency around recency, so you can rest assured of proper screening. Some providers will even let you specify compliance and select based on your project’s needs.
In the abstract, any attorney who is licensed and in good standing with the state bar is considered competent to practice law. However, experience and areas of expertise vary. Always ensure that your appearance counsel has previously handled the type of work you will need them to do. Of course, there is a large gap between filing a legal document and working a contested bench trial. An appearance attorney provider should be able to help you find the right attorney with the required background and demonstrated performance to meet your specific needs.
Most laypeople are surprised when they find out an attorney represents both plaintiffs and defendants. While this is ethical, it can make potential clients wary of whether their attorney can effectively advocate for their interests. If dual representation is likely to pose a problem for the clients of your firm, you will want to consider this when screening.
There is a lot for law firms to consider when it comes to working with appearance attorneys. It is important to recognize which types of legal work are best suited for an appearance attorney versus in-house staff. This can help your firm better determine when it is best to hire an appearance attorney.
It is also important to think about why your firm should work with an appearance attorney. Will doing so enable your firm to work on things that are most important to your firm’s legal practice?
Finally, think about how your firm should go about hiring an appearance attorney. You will want to work with only a reputable online vendor, so you know exactly what to expect.
Docketly’s vendor platform makes the search for appearance attorneys a breeze. With more than 10,000 attorneys located throughout the country, Docketly can help ensure your law firm gets the quality legal assistance it needs. To learn more services, schedule a demo today.
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