An ethics complaint is a serious matter for a lawyer. While an ethics complaint can be filed against you because of your failure to properly research a matter and argue it well, not notifying the court of an issue with your client when appropriate, or other matters that come from the actual practice of law. Yet, most complaints filed against lawyers are for things that are important to your practice, but don’t make up the substantive portion: failing to communicate with clients, not meeting deadlines, and not completing CLEs.
Regardless of the issue behind the ethics complaint, there can be serious consequences. You can be suspended or disbarred. It could result in a private reprimand. When you get a negative outcome, you must report it to every jurisdiction where you’re licensed to practice. That can trigger more investigations and more consequences.
Because of the serious nature of an ethics complaint, it’s important for you to find a strategy to minimize the risk of facing one. We’ve got one for you! We’ve broken the strategy into five parts. Read through each section (even if you don’t think you have a problem in that area) and implement the listed tips.
The purpose of client intake is to create a file for new clients. However, the process can highlight red flags that could cause trouble for you in the future. You must consider:
Subject area. It’s important that you understand what the client wants you to do. It’s equally important that you only take on clients in subject areas where you have experience. If you want to expand your practice to include new areas, get a mentor or get experience in that area before taking on clients. Taking on clients you’re not prepared to help can lead you down the road to an ethics complaint.
Retainer received. It’s important that your clients can afford to pay you. You can’t always walk away from a matter when you’re not getting paid. List your retainer and make sure that you collect it up front.
Ask about litigation history. Does your potential client seem to have a habit of firing and suing their attorneys or other service providers? If so, you may not want to take the case on. This is a red flag and is a potential ethics complaint looking for a place to happen.
Get the proper contact information. One of the most common ethics complaints filed against lawyers is lack of contact. Of course, it’s much easier for you to reach out and update your clients if you have the right contact information. Get as much contact information as you can from them…and make sure that you use it.
The reasonableness of their requests. If the potential client has requests or demands that are unreasonable for you to handle, consider saying no. If you’re unable to meet deadlines on behalf of your client, you could become the subject of an ethics investigation.
Your own personal experience. Think about the difficult clients you wish you never would have taken on. Screen for the issues that made you feel that way.
Always say no to cases that cause warning bells to ring in your head.
Communication is an integral part of the attorney-client relationship. As mentioned earlier, lack of communication is one of the main reasons ethics complaints are filed. So, it’s important that you create (and use) systems that work:
Phone calls. Create an internal office policy for returning phone calls. Set aside a time each day to return calls. Creating a schedule is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to handle phone calls. You’ll be more focused and ready to respond to the needs and questions your clients have. Do your best to return phone calls within 24 business hours of receiving them.
Emails. It’s important to reply to emails from your clients, too. Remember that practically everyone has access to their email at all times. Although you can’t always reply right away, don’t wait days to send a response. Send a reply within 24 business hours. If you’re going to be away from the office, use your out of office responder to inform clients that you’ll reply to them as soon as you’re back in the office. If you have support staff and you’re going to be out of the office, make sure that they have access to your email.
Use online portals. There are a lot of great legal tech options available that enables clients to log in and see how their case is going. You can leave updates and communicate with clients through those portals in a way that is secure.
Update clients on a regular basis. Clients want to know what’s going on with their case. Make sure that you’re sending out regular updates about their matter. Not only will this keep clients happier, you’ll also experience fewer unscheduled phone calls.
You know the importance of deadlines. Missing a deadline can result in an ethics complaint. Use your calendar, a project management solution, electronic reminders, or even an old fashioned paper tickler to keep on top of your deadlines. Keep your deadlines reasonable and consider tracking how long it takes for you to prepare certain documents or for certain court hearings. You can adjust your reminders to include that time so that you know when to start.
It’s important to stay on top of your billing. It helps clients know what’s going on. You should:
Track your time every day. This will make your billing more accurate. You’ll know exactly how much time you spent on a matter and won’t have to guess. If you don’t want to embrace a digital system that can help you track your time, immediately write down your start and stop time for each matter (along with the date, what you were doing, the file number, and the client name) on a legal pad. The important thing is to be consistent.
Create bills on the same day each month. Clients don’t like surprises when it comes to when (or if) they’ll receive a bill. Create and send out bills on the same day each month.
Stay on top of incremental billing. If you think that a client will exceed their retainer during the month, create a reminder to check. Then, contact the client and ask them what they’d like you to do. This will help keep clients happy by showing them that you respect their money and their time. It also helps protect you from unhappy clients who receive a big bill they weren’t expecting.
Track Your CLEs
CLE compliance is mandatory. You can be investigated and prosecuted if you don’t keep accurate records of your CLE completion or if you fail to complete them. Know and meet the requirements in your jurisdiction for CLEs. Keep detailed, accurate records that you can produce in the event that you’re audited.
If you’re looking to learn more about legal ethics, check out Megan’s new podcast Lawyers Gone Ethical. It’s available for free through iTunes!
If you receive an ethics complaint from the California Bar and you’re not sure where you should start, check out The State Bar Playbook. This is Megan’s interactive and easy to use guide (and community!) that will help guide you through the process from receipt of the complaint all the way through the appeals process!