New Mexico attorney workload study shows alarming understaffing
We knew a deep analysis of our staffing and workload would show a deficiency, we just didn’t know it would be this much!
“The New Mexico Project” workload analysis report from the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, completed and released in January 2022, says we are short 602 fulltime attorneys to handle our current caseload.
That’s three times our current attorney level. Looked at in another way, that is each legal team member straining under logistic and emotional weight 3x what they can sustainably and ethically hold.
It’s almost too big a number to comprehend, and we risked feeling defeated in the face of it. Even if our legislators provide us the funds, where would we find that many attorneys to hire? How do we sustain morale among staff who have long felt but now see in numbers what they are truly up against?
But instead of sinking into hopelessness, we took this report and found comfort – and more motivation – in it. This is validation of what we’ve been warning about for years: New Mexico’s public defense attorneys and staff are so overburdened with cases we are unable to provide clients the support and representation they desperately need – and are constitutionally entitled to.
We’ve said it in meetings with legislators, our judiciary and the media. We said it loud and clear when we began to refuse case assignments in our most overburdened county in 2016. We said it when we went to our state Supreme Court defending that action in 2017. We were told, simply, that our words weren’t enough. We needed to show some proof.
Well, now we have it.
The ABA’s report used an intensive interview method of our state’s most respected lawyers to derive consensus on how much time should be spent on each type of legal case. The analysts then applied this standard to our current caseload by case type to determine how much time our entire caseload should be taking. Then – very conservatively – they calculated how many attorneys would need to work 40 hours a week, every week of the year to cover that load. Obviously, that’s not a practical estimate; we have to, you know, answer the phone, discuss cases with colleagues, attend trainings, travel to court, not to mention take vacations, and sick and mental health days. Even with this conservative calculation, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender needs 602 additional attorneys. While the report focuses just on attorneys, we know this means more secretaries, paralegals, investigators and social workers, too. Our statewide agency operates on about $54 million budget supporting 13 offices with about 180 staff attorneys plus legal support teams and an average 130 private attorneys on contract.
It took decades for us to get into this position, and it will take us time to get out of it through a combination of more funding and staffing and, with hard work, legal reform to reduce caseloads. We have been and will continue to ring this alarm in all of our conversations with media, at our legislature and even in court – this time with data in hand.
Thank you to NAPD, Stephen Hanlon, Malia Brink and the folks at Moss Adams for your dedication to our project and to changing how we approach public defense funding and caseloads across the country. We know it isn’t just us in this position.
If you have questions or want to talk to us about our experience with this and our continuing advocacy using it, please reach out to me and us. You can email us HERE