How to Avoid Problems in the Modern Day Law Practice
Chandler Law’s Top 10 Tips – Part I
I co-conduct a statewide for CLE credit seminar on Risk Management, Legal Ethics, and Professional Liability. We cover a lot of ground in two hours, but beyond the lunch, which is served during the seminar, one of the more interactive parts of the discussion is my list of Top 10 Tips for avoiding those “Houston, we have a problem” situations. Based on my experience defending attorneys against Georgia State Bar complaints and representing plaintiff-clients in professional liability cases, I created these tips to help you learn lessons from the mistakes others have already made.
Here are the first 5 tips, with some more detail around why you should keep these top-of-mind as you work with your clients and run your law business.
- Know the Rules. Did you know that the Georgia Supreme court revised 28 of the 61 Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct in November 2011? I’ve covered some of these in previous articles, but many of these changes affect your everyday practice, such as Rule 1.15(I) Safekeeping of Property and Rule 4.3 Dealing with Unrepresented Persons. More changes may be coming. Other significant changes, such as the Rules governing conflicts of interest, will be covered in future articles. The ABA is considering a number of technology-related Rules updates that may be considered by the GA Bar in the future. The full Rules are located here: http://www.gabar.org/barrules/georgia-rules-of-professional-conduct.cfm.
- Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Before you receive a Bar complaint or face a professional malpractice claim, have your personal and professional policies reviewed:
- When you change practice areas.
- When you add new employees.
- When the value of your engagements increase.
- Protect your assets with sufficient insurance, wills, trusts and estate plans. Consult a lawyer or other firm with a practice focused on asset protection for the professional.
- Know thy clients. Before you take on a new client, make sure you have a thorough understanding of whom that client really is. Meet them prior to undertaking representation, find out their motivation for hiring counsel, and listen closely to their responses. Watch for the warning signs and red flags, like an improper purpose for hiring counsel, financial inability to retain legal counsel, or questionable business ethics. Trust your gut and act on your instincts.
- Copy thy clients. Send your client a copy of what you receive and a copy of what you send out. When you do this for every communication, no commentary is necessarily required for the transmittal. Timeliness is critical so your client can make timely and informed decisions. Remember that you can always follow up with an explanation letter or phone call after the client has had to time review the communication. For important decisions that are based on a document sent to the client, follow up with a decision confirming letter or e-mail memorializing that decision. This minimizes the chances of “buyer’s remorse.”
- Communicate early and often. ALWAYS put it in writing. Don’t ASS-U-ME anything, if you get my drift. This is especially important when developing, not developing, or ending client engagements. Clear engagement letters should define the beginning point, objectives, scope of work, payment terms, dispute provisions, and the end point (disengagement letter). If the “beginning” never occurs, issue non-engagement letters. Every relevant consultation ought to have some go or no-go documentation. Remember some people consider one visit to an attorney’s office enough to establish an attorney-client relationship. Others will believe that your duties to them continue beyond the conclusion of the case or engagement. Even if the client is a repeat business client, send a matter conclusion confirmation letter, which welcomes the client’s retaining you for future work.
I’ll continue with Tips 6-10 in my next article. Stay tuned.