Big Picture or Small Details? Which Matters More in Bar Complaints?

Which do you think matters more in a bar complaint: the big picture or the small details? The truth is that in the eyes of the ethics committee, both the big picture and the small details are cause for an investigation. This is because either one can violate the ethics rules in your jurisdiction.

Even the Big Picture Could Be Full of Small Details

The big picture is getting to the result that your client wants. It is important for you to remember that determining the end-goal is an area where the client carries authority. If they want to settle, then you work to settle it. You educate them, but you don’t get to make the decision. If they want to litigate, then you prepare to litigate (even if you don’t believe it is in the best interest of your client).

It is rare that the road to the ultimate goal is straight and narrow. There are set-backs. There are complications. Those small matters can affect the entire case. Failure to keep clients updated or failing to meet deadlines even with the small details can result in a bar complaint being filed against you.

What about Small Matters?

Small matters may be routine for your law office. It could be a basic legal template that you prepare dozens of time each week. Maybe you don’t even bother to get clients to sign a retainer agreement. In your mind, these small matters simply aren’t that big of a deal. Those little things can quickly become a big problem that results in an ethics investigation against you because a new client may think that you were including something extra. Maybe they think that because they’ve not ever gone through the process. Maybe it’s because they talked to a dozen other lawyers who said that one thing you didn’t do is something they do and the client now believes you dropped by the ball.

It’s extremely difficult for a lawyer to defend an ethics complaint when there is no written evidence of what you agreed to do for the client. Small matters rarely create a substantive case file that you could use, if necessary.

Always Use a Detailed Engagement Agreement

Whether you’re handling big, complicated legal situations or small matters, you should always use a detailed engagement agreement and retainer agreement. The retainer agreement outlines what the client pays at the beginning of the case and how the money will be used. The engagement agreement explains exactly what you will (and won’t) do.  This is important regardless of the size of the matter. It helps refresh your memory and acts as a paper trail.

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!

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