Let’s talk about a practical New Year’s resolution all lawyers should consider making: doing what they can to avoid an ethics complaint. At Zavieh Law, we’re devoted to helping lawyers defend themselves when they’re being investigated because of an ethics complaint. However, we understand the stress that lawyers face under those circumstances. That’s why we make it a priority to give lawyers the information they need to help minimize this very serious issue. Since many complaints are filed because of administrative issues that happen within the law office, here are some simple changes lawyers can make in 2018.
Examine the Client Intake Process
If you could protect yourself from clients who could cause trouble for you, would you do it? The client intake process is a way for you to find out about the client’s problem. You can also use the process to find out whether you believe this client would be a good fit for your firm. Your client intake questionnaire should include:
- A brief description of the client’s issue. If it doesn’t fall within your main wheelhouse, turn it down. Only take on clients in your core area until you gain experience in those other areas.
- Be clear about your retainer and find out about their ability to pay. While you can’t always just walk away because a client stops paying, you can minimize these types of clients by screening them out in the beginning. It’s important that you’re paid for your services. If a client or potential client can’t pay, you could end up with a big problem. Even if you regularly offer and use payment plans, make sure that you get a reasonable amount of money for what you’re doing.
- Ask about litigation history. If the person has a history of hiring and firing lawyers, that’s a huge red flag.
- Get all the information you need to contact the client. Don’t just rely on one phone number. Don’t settle for just getting an email address. One of the main ethics complaints filed against lawyers involves clients who believe that their lawyers aren’t contacting them as they should. As the professional, it is your responsibility to have the information that you need.
- Use screening based on your personal experiences. You know from experience which actions could mean trouble for you. Use those to screen your clients. Also, consider the reasonableness of the demands being made.
Become a Communication Commando
Make sure that you stay on top of contacting your clients. In addition to reviewing the tips below, make sure that you have a way to track when you reached out to clients, whether you contacted them or left a message, and the topic of the conversation or message. This type of log can be invaluable if you’re the subject of an ethics complaint.
- Return phone calls. Choose a time each day to return phone calls from your clients. If you have court or another pressing matter that prevents you from returning calls, delegate the task to a trusted support assistant. They may not give legal advice, but they can find out what’s going on and schedule a time for you to speak with the client.
- Respond to emails. Don’t make your clients wait days on a response from you. Because clients have the ability to check their email at any time, they expect to hear from you sooner rather than later. If you can’t respond because you have court, set up your out of office response to inform people who email you that you’ll respond when you return to the office. Also, create email rules to separate out your client and legal matter related emails from personal or junk email. It will make it much easier for you to ensure that you don’t miss responding to a client. Before you leave the office for the night, look at your email one more time to make sure that you didn’t miss an email that needs a response.
- Utilize online portals. If you use MyCase or another online portal that allows you to connect with clients, make sure that you’re making the most of its features. In many, clients have the ability to contact you. If you don’t have time to check the online portal every day, task it to a responsible support assistant who can triage the messages on your behalf.
- Send out updates on a regular basis. We know that it can take time to take care of legal matters, but long periods of silence can result in angry clients. Develop (and use) a plan to issue updates. If a matter is in active litigation, send out a weekly update of some sort. Creating and using a system for issuing client updates will also cut down on unscheduled client phone calls to your office.
Stay on Top of Deadlines and Billing
Skipping a deadline is an almost guaranteed way to become the center of an ethics complaint. There are several options you can use to stay on top of deadlines:
- Use electronic reminders. This can be done through your email, your phone, your online calendar, or any combination of the three. You need to do more than include the deadline. You need to have a reminder that alerts you to the deadline early enough that you can address what needs to be done.
- Paper system. You can go the old-school route and set up folders for every day of the year. You can use those folders to track deadlines as well as leave reminders for yourself on when you should start on certain projects or matters.
No one likes a surprise on their bill. You should set-up a billing routine that takes place each day or week. Ensuring that your billing is done on time can help protect you from ethics complaints. When you send out invoices on a regular basis, you have happier clients.
- If possible, add your time to invoices every day. Obviously, you don’t have to send out invoices each day, but adding your time to your invoice system each day means that your invoices are ready to go when you’re ready to send them out.
- Monthly billing. Choose a time of the month that all bills will be sent. This helps clients know when to expect their bill and it helps them plan to pay it. It also cuts down on the “surprises.”
- Incremental billing. Keep an eye on your time if you have clients that you think will go over their monthly retainer. This helps protect your time and helps get you paid. Clients are likely to question a huge bill that far exceeded what they expected to pay. Check your time and the bill at a certain time of the month. Contact the client to determine if you should keep going or if you should stop for the month.
Although it may seem time consuming to pay this much attention to the administrative side of your law office, it can protect you in the long-run. It helps protect you from an ethics complaint. However, if you’re involved in an ethics complaint, schedule a consultation with Zavieh Law. We provide both limited and full scope representation. Megan Zavieh is also the author of The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.