09 July 2007

Who Litigates Cases?

The Colorado Bar Association has about 14,000 members. There are more than 20,000 attorneys licensed to practice law in Colorado.

Every criminal cases is prosecuted by an attorney in the U.S. Attorneys Office for Colorado (about 49 attorneys), the Colorado Attorney General's Office (about 41 attorneys), or one of the 21 District Attorney's offices in the state (about 450 attorneys), so in all there are about 540 attorneys who prosecute criminal cases in the state. These numbers are derived from the Colorado legal directory, which provides a nearly complete list of prosecuting attorneys in the state, excluding only lower ranking deupty district attorneys in the 19th and 20th Judicial Districts for which I have made estimates based on the staffing in districts of similar population.

There are about 228 attorneys in the Colorado public defenders office (both trial and appellate combined), and about 17 federal public defenders in Colorado (a public defenders jurisdiction that also includes Wyoming) (federal numbers from the Colorado legal directory). Thus, there are 245 public defenders in the state. Nationally, public defenders handle about 75%-80% of criminal cases, and there is no reason to think that Colorado is atypical in this regard.

There were 1,916 criminal jury trials in Colorado in 2006, making up about 85% of jury trials in the state each year. There were another 809 criminal bench trials in Colorado that year (excluding infraction final hearings), which constitute about a third of all non-jury trials in the state (other than small claims hearings) each year. This includes both state and federal cases, but excludes muncipal ordinance cases which are generally prosecuted by county attorneys in municipal court, and overwhelmingly consist of traffic cases.

There were also about 1,568 civil trials to the court in Colorado (excluding 3,485 small claims hearings generally conducted without attorneys), and 372 civil jury trials in Colorado, in 2006 (federal and state combined).

Thus, about two-thirds of the jury trials in the state, and about a quarter of bench trials are handled entirely by just 785 attorneys, which make up less than 4% of the licensed attorneys in the state, and another 20% or so of jury trials (about 380) and 8% of bench trials (about 160) in the state are handled by a public prosecutor who is among that 4%, and a private criminal defense attorney. A large share of all criminal cases are handled by attorneys who special in criminal defense, and they tend to have trials more frequently than civil litigators, often several a year.

It is a fair guess that the vast majority of criminal cases in Colorado, probably 80% of jury trials and 30% of bench trials, at least, are handled by roughly 1,000-1,400 criminal lawyers who make up about 5-7% or less (the 20,000 number above is probably an underestimate) of the lawyers licensed to practice in Colorado.

This leaves only about 1,900 trials a year for the other 19,000 lawyers in Colorado, which means that the average non-criminal lawyer in Colorado handles just one trial every ten years or so, an average of just 4 or so trials per career per lawyer. The average non-criminal lawyer in Colorado handles less than one civil jury trial in an entire career.

In fact, some lawyers have relatively active civil trial practices (a busy civil trial lawyer with a personal injury practice does a couple of jury trials a year), while others don't do any litigation -- instead handling contract drafting and negotiation, real estate deals, corporate paperwork, estate planning, and other transactional practice specialties. Also, most lawyers that participate in civil litigation are specialized -- some handle mostly large volume, small dollar amount collection and eviction cases, some bring personal injury and consumer suits, some defend suits for insurance companies or corporations, some handle family law cases, and some handle all or a portion of a government entity's litigation.

In the two-thirds of civil trials in county court, the vast majority are handled by large volume, small dollar amount collections and evictions lawyers, often with pro se defendants. The vast majority of these cases are probably litigated by fewer than 200 attorneys (at 6 trials a year). This leaves only about 600 trials a year for upwards of 18,000 Colorado lawyers.

Ironically, so called "trial lawyers," a term usally applied to attorneys who bring personal injury suits, consumer protections suits and civil rights suits, make up a relatively small share of the total share of trial litigators in the state.

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