Megan is speaking at Take Charge, a CLE offered by the State Bar of Georgia’s Solo and Small Firm Institute on September 28, 2018 at 9:05 am. Her topic is Ethics and Law Office Technology: Where Worlds Collide. In honor of Megan’s upcoming discussion, this post will discuss how online legal practice management can help you avoid ethical violations.
What Is Online Legal Practice Management?
Online legal practice management means that a lawyer (or their office manager) uses one or more online solutions to help manage the law practice. There are complete online legal practice management solutions, such as Clio. Some state bars offer their own branded online legal practice management products that lawyers may access for free or for a reduced cost if they are a current member in good standing.
Of course, there are also stand-alone options that a lawyer may choose if they don’t want to move their entire practice management process into the digital realm. The most common options used track your time, create invoices and track payments, and a digital calendaring system.
How Can Online Legal Practice Management Help You Avoid Ethical Violations?
Before we look at this question, it’s important to first address the three most commonly reported ethical violations:
- Lack of competence
- Lack of diligence
- Conflict of interest
Every jurisdiction has rules that discuss these (and other) ethical violations. Many jurisdictions adopt the ABA Model Rules 1.1, 1.3, and 1.7. Because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You can review the ABA Model Rules that address those areas by clicking the outbound links in this paragraph. However, it’s also important that you read up on the rules in the jurisdiction where you’re admitted to practice.
Competence, as summarized by Megan, ultimately comes down to competent representation of clients. If a client complains about your substantive work, you could be accused of failing to perform with competence. This holds true even if your actions (or lack of action) was the appropriate path. It could be that you routinely showed up for meetings and hearings late, you were ill prepared, or you’re new to private practice and you didn’t complete necessary tasks. Not only do you need to understand the area of law in which you practice, but you must also be adequately prepared, show up on time, and meet deadlines.
Diligence means that you’re well-organized so that you’re able to meet all of your deadlines. You follow through on all potential legal theories, and you stay on top of what your client needs. Diligence may seem like a simple process, but it’s not always as easy as it seems. You have to properly manage your schedule, your cases, and ensure that you’re prepared to do the best possible job you can for your clients.
A conflict of interest for current clients means that you’re representing a party that is at odds with at least one current client. However, despite its simplicity in meaning, the problem arises because you don’t recognize that you’re engaging in such a conflict. Although clients can waive, you must obtain informed consent that is confirmed in writing. This isn’t the use of a generalized waiver that is already part of your retainer agreement. It means that you know and follow the specific requirements in your jurisdiction. You must have the discussion with your client. You should also let them know that they have the option to talk to another lawyer before they sign the waiver.
Now that we’ve gone through a quick refresher on the three most common ethical violations, let’s look at how online legal practice management could help you avoid them. You’ll recall that online legal practice management can be either a stand-alone set of tools that are offered by one organization. It has tools that can meet most (if not all) of your needs as a lawyer. Then, there are individual options that you can choose from to help you manage areas of your practice where you may be struggling. The common components are:
- Scheduling tools (both internal and client; this may or may not include consultation scheduling)
- Billing automation and invoice creation
- Project and task management
Of course, depending on the online legal practice management tool(s) you choose, you’re likely to have an assortment of features that you can use. Let’s look at these three and how they can help protect you from ethical violations.
Scheduling Tools. Used for both internal scheduling and client needs, scheduling tools are used to help you remain competent and diligence. You can track internal deadlines, meetings with clients and opposing counsel, staff meetings, court dates, and your own personal and professional appointments. Make sure that you enable reminders for appointments 24 hours in advance and either one hour or 30 minutes before the appointment so that you can be prepared for the appointment at hand.
Billing Automation and Invoice Creation. We don’t mean a “set it and forget it” type experience. It is still your responsibility to review invoices before they are sent to clients. Instead, we mean that you’re able to track your time, add flat rate projects, and add expenses without hassle. You’d create an invoice at the proper time of the month with just a click of a button. Remember, no one likes billing surprises. Billing surprises and not receiving a timely invoice are both common reasons why clients file bar complaints.
Project and Task Management. You’re a lawyer. You’re busy. It’s easy to see how something (big or small) may fall between the proverbial cracks. Project and task management features in online legal practice management software can help you track and update where you are with projects and ensure that you get all of your tasks completed in a timely manner.
Learn More about Practice Management
Proper practice management can help you protect yourself from allegations of ethical violations. To learn more about practice management, review the ethics rules in your jurisdiction and check out resources provided by your state bar. If you’re in Georgia and you’re a solo lawyer, make sure that you’re involved in the Solo and Small Firm Institute!