Who Is Your Weakest Link? 7 Tips for Managing Non-Lawyer Employees

 In Georgia State Bar Grievances, Legal Malpractice

 

“I didn’t even know that my secretary did it. They can’t blame me!” This was the start of a conversation I had with another attorney about his Georgia Bar complaint.

What if this had been you? You delegate some fairly routine case work to an assistant or paralegal. The assignment is lost or sent on your behalf without your approval. A deadline is missed or a case goes south. Then your client comes after you with a GA Bar grievance or legal malpractice claim.

You think, “How can the client (or the GA State Bar) blame me if my assistant made the mistake?”  We blame others for a living, but it doesn’t work here. The client has every right to blame you, and the GA Bar agrees.

Non-Lawyer Employee Management Topics

Here are three places where this topic is mentioned in the Bar Rules, plus some tips for better managing your staff to avoid issues like the one mentioned above.

Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct 5.3 outlines our responsibilities regarding non-lawyer staff associated with our firms. We are expected to have reasonable policies and procedures in place to ensure that our staff conforms to the Rules. We need to supervise the staff, monitor activity, and implement corrective action when necessary. The same holds true with new attorneys as well. Click here to read the Rule.

This is also discussed in Formal Advisory Opinion 21 as well as Formal Advisory Opinion 00-2. Just click the appropriate opinion for a link to the actual text, but here is a brief summary. FAO 21 offers guidelines for what the non-lawyer staff can and can’t do, where FAO 00-2 specifically states that a non-lawyer can’t prepare correspondence that threatens legal action or provides legal advice. Both warn us not to “assist in the unauthorized practice of law.”

Additional Employee Management Tips

Here are some additional tips to help you avoid issues with your weakest link:

  • Don’t allow anyone to sign your name other than on a transmittal letter.
  • Make sure clients, judges, etc. know each employee’s status (i.e., “Law Clerk” in signature line).
  • Have an employee handbook. If you don’t, write something down. The ABA offers a publication   on handbooks for $13, or call the Georgia Bar Law Practice Management Program at 800-334-6865.  This not only helps guide employees when you are not available for a question, but it also brings continuity to the firm when someone is absent.
  • Train new hires on your policies, even if someone has experience at another firm.  Sometimes support staff develops bad habits at former employers which can haunt you if not addressed.
  • If there is a questionable action, correct immediately and share with your team.
  • Set guidelines for communicating confidential information outside of the firm, and also within publicly accessed space at your firm. This includes something as innocent as checking in at a confidential client site on four-square or mentioning client information in the reception area.
  • Self-assess.  Get a Law Practice Management Audit. Do it yourself (the ABA has guidelines), or hire a neutral third party.

Your secretary may have been preparing your legal documents for 25 years and that may work today, but if something in a case goes wrong your client (or the GA State Bar) will scrutinize your behavior looking for any mistakes. At a minimum, you and other supervising attorneys in your firm need to at least be reviewing if not rendering the legal information and advice, and then signing your own documents.

So take responsibility for your employees. Set up a lunch and learn meeting to discuss your policies and guidelines. Document the questions and maintain a living document and FAQ. Review quarterly or as issues arise. Build a culture where employees are comfortable reporting potential issues to their supervising attorneys. As long as the mistake doesn’t demonstrate deception or ill-intent, use the situation as a learning experience for the staff and move on.

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