Public defenders in the state of Missouri are beginning in a new practice that could change the way they handle their overflowing caseloads: they are tracking their time in five minute intervals.
This kind of time documentation is something corporate lawyers commonly use to justify how they bill clients. In turn, tracking hours this way allows them to justify how they have spent their time on client matters.
Public defenders are famous for being overburdened with cases and therefore tremendous amounts of paperwork and case preparation, to say nothing of actual court time. It is a branch of the legal profession that burns out many idealistic young lawyers, not only because of heavy workloads, but because validly-reached verdicts within the judicial system do not always equal just outcomes. How a public defender spends their time, what type of research they do, what avenues of defense they pursue, can weigh heavily on a client's guilt or innocence. So far, standard practice has been to not track this data.
The potential significance of this new time tracking practice is huge. First, more thorough documentation of the work public defenders do might be helpful in client appeals. Second, they could become the basis for policy changes that provide for improved best practices, or even greater funding for public defenders.
So why is Missouri is important? Missouri ranks 49th out of all 50 states in spending on defense of the poor. Tracking of public defender time will make explicit their workloads, develop comparable metrics for different case types. This data can also be used to justify additional funds for public defenders. Without it, who knows? Currently, average allowed caseloads are not be based in empirical data. As such, guidelines for setting caseload limits are outdated. There is no way to verify what represents a heavy or light workload, and the chance that criteria set thirty years ago might not be relevant today.
One of the report's authors explained, "It is imperative, that staff hours be tracked, analyzed, and used to determine staff hours needed to meet the caseload for each office." (Source)
In fact, the state of Nebraska implemented timesheets for their public defenders many years ago, and have since used years of time tracking data to develop custom caseload guidelines for the public defenders.
Time tracking isn't only the process of tracking and evaluating individual employees time and project allocations. It can be used to make important decisions about how organizational resources are allocated, how projects are assigned, and what expectations should be.
It is true that many parts of the private sector for years have tracked worker time for payroll, attendance or projects. But, like Missouri public defenders, there are many organizations not formally tracking leave time. Or they might not be tracking work at a detailed-enough level to make meaningful adjustments to policies and procedures. In the case of Missouri, public defenders not having their work time tracked carefully has probably led to overwork, underperfomance, and an inability for managers to have enough of a window into how things could be improved. This time tracking project might turn out to be a good first step toward getting Missouri out of the public defense basement.