An experienced, full-time tenant lawyer can effectively take on 48 eviction cases per year, according to a highly-anticipated report released Aug. 31 by a state court working group.
How many eviction cases can one tenant lawyer effectively take on?
The question is central to understanding how much it costs to fairly represent low-income tenants across New York City—an increasingly pressing question since pandemic-related eviction restrictions were lifted in early 2022.
And now the court system has weighed in with an answer. An experienced, full-time tenant lawyer can reasonably be assigned 48 eviction cases per year, according to a highly-anticipated report released Aug. 31 by a state court working group.
This caseload is not “one-size-fits-all” and should be used as a guide rather than a “firm maximum,” the report states. This legal work is difficult, it continues, and input from attorneys on the ground was “essential” in determining this benchmark.
Although it is not binding, unionized attorneys hope the figure will bolster their demands for case caps in future contracts. The analysis also comes as legal service providers meet with the city to discuss future funding and the number of eviction cases they’ll be expected to take on.
“It’s a very positive development and it’s a step in the right direction,” said Adriene Holder, chief attorney for the civil practice at the Legal Aid Society. “Up until this point there had not been an established case standard.”
Looking ahead, she continued, “it’s going to lay out clearly how many attorneys are going to be needed.”
The Universal Access to Justice Caseload Working Group—composed of judges, court staff and outside experts—convened in May 2022. The group met with nonprofit lawyers and union leaders as well as New York City’s Office of Civil Justice, which is tasked with administering the city’s 2017 Right to Counsel program.
The first program of its kind in the country, Right to Counsel offers free legal representation for low-income tenants across the city, helping the majority of those served stay in their homes.
Eviction filings have yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, but have increased considerably in the past year. According to a tracker maintained by advocates with the Right to Counsel coalition, fewer than half of tenants sued between mid-January 2022 and early May 2023 have had lawyers assigned to them as of last month.
To reach the 48-case benchmark, the caseload working group analyzed how many hours attorneys spent on thousands of cases across two unnamed legal service organizations—one large, one small—comparing cases closed in 2019 to those closed in 2022. Both providers saw their per-case hours increase during that time.
The larger of the two organizations saw average case times increase 13 percent, from 25.6 hours to 28.9 hours, while the smaller provider saw its average case hours leap 41 percent, from 23.4 to 32.9.
The report describes several factors that have increased the amount of time tenant lawyers spend on their cases in recent years.
Reforms to state rent laws in 2019 boosted the number of defenses that tenants can raise. And as cases became more complex, the pandemic prompted many lawyers to resign, leaving others to absorb their cases and get up to speed. Meanwhile, lawyers report delays processing rental assistance applications with city agencies.
Joanna Laine, a tenant lawyer in Brooklyn, said that she currently has 70 open eviction cases. “I constantly am trying to get into better shape with my caseload, and it’s just an uphill battle,” she told City Limits.
Laine is also a member of the bargaining committee for the civil unit at the Legal Aid Society. Her union’s contract expired in June 2022, and she and her colleagues are demanding a cap of four new cases per month—equivalent to 48 cases per year.
“We are really happy to see that the study recognizes that our current caseloads, which are well higher than that number, are absolutely unacceptable,” she said. “And we urge our employer, the Legal Aid Society, to use this study as further reason to accept our contract demand of no more than four cases per month.”
A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Society declined to comment on union negotiations.
Rosalind Black, citywide housing director at Legal Services NYC, another major Right to Counsel contractor, focused on the benchmark’s potential for boosting overall program funding. Although this year’s city budget added about $20 million for tenant representation, she and her colleagues say this isn’t enough.
“Our initial reaction is that the findings are going to be a useful tool for us to understand, big picture, how much funding is needed to do this work,” Black said.
Asked whether she supports attorney case-caps, Black said appropriate caseloads vary from lawyer to lawyer, and that “a numerical limit… is not a helpful tool.”
The caseload report assumes 1,400 working hours per year, and describes a hypothetical seasoned attorney who dedicates all of their time to eviction defense. Both staff lawyers and their managers emphasized that this seldom happens in practice.
“While 48 case assignments may be okay for somebody with a few years of legal experience or more, somebody who’s a brand new attorney shouldn’t be receiving that caseload,” said Jeremy Bunyaner, a staff attorney with CAMBA Legal Services representing tenants in Brooklyn.
Even an experienced attorney realistically splits their time between numerous responsibilities, Bunyaner added. The caseload study notes this, finding that casework took up anywhere from 40 to 84 percent of attorneys’ time across seven organizations.
“People work through vacations, when they’re sick, on weekends, and put in late hours because it’s impossible to do all the legal work, all the advocacy, all the other obligations such as admin work and professional development within the time allotted that we’re paid for,” Bunyaner said.
But he nevertheless welcomed the 48-case benchmark, saying it is in line with the maximum case volume his union demanded in a July grievance. According to that grievance, he and his colleagues are currently expected to take on close to 6 cases per month, or 70 cases per year. CAMBA did not reply to a request for comment.
In the short term, attorneys urged the Office of Civil Justice to retract a recent three-year solicitation for Right to Counsel providers, saying the new case benchmark must be taken into consideration. A spokesperson for the office did not immediately comment.
The caseload report confirms that the pandemic changed how housing court functions, Bunyaner, the CAMBA attorney, said—requiring more time per case and more overall funding to represent every qualifying tenant.
When attorneys are stretched too thin, some tenants receive only brief legal advice.
“We actually want to take these cases, and it really sucks to only give advice,” Bunyaner said. “But there’s a point where it’s too much.”