5 Steps to Help Protect Your Practice from an Attorney Bar Complaint in California

Attorney bar complaints in California are taken very seriously by the ethics committee. Thousands of complaints are filed against lawyers every year. How can you help protect your practice year around? The good news is that it’s easier than you think. In this post, we’re going to explain five steps you can take. Since we’re quickly coming into the 2018 holiday season, there’s no better time than now to work through these steps. They’ll help you keep your practice on track during the busy holiday season and get you ready for the new year!

Review Your Client Intake Process

The first step you should take to protect your practice from an attorney bar complaint in California is to review your client intake process. In short, do you have a way to screen out potential clients that could cause a problem for you in the future? To keep this simple, you can create a checklist that acts as a screening tool. It should include:

  • Subject matter. Make a point to only take on clients in the areas of law where you have adequate experience. Of course, many lawyers decide to change their practice area. Before you take clients in that area, you need to get experience or get a mentor.
  • Can the client pay? The inability of someone to pay their invoice can cause a serious problem for you in more ways than one. If you’re actively working on their case, you may not be allowed to just stop helping them even if they don’t pay. Make sure that you get a reasonable retainer and that they have a means to pay you before you take on their matter.
  • Is there a history of litigating against their previous attorneys? If so, this is a huge red flag.
  • Will you be able to contact the client when necessary? One of the main reason attorney bar complaints in California are filed is because of lack of communication on the part of the lawyer. So, make sure that you know how often they expect information, that they understand how they can get updates, when you routinely update clients on their matters, whether you’ll call or email them, whether they’ll have a log in to a program like Clio that allows lawyers to securely message clients, and that you have all of their contact information.
  • Are their demands reasonable? This needs to be assessed during client intake. If their demands are not reasonable, such as drafting and filing a motion on the same day because that’s the deadline for it to be filed, do not take on the client.
  • Consider your personal experience. What actions or behaviors have you noticed in the past that came from a problematic relationship with a client? Consider how you can possibly screen for those problems so that you can avoid a repeat.

Communication Is Key

It’s important that you stay on top of communicating with clients. You should create a written policy that explains how and when you return messages left by phone or respond to emails. When others know what to expect and you follow through on it, you are taking a necessary step in protecting your practice. Make sure that you use your out of office responder and change your voicemail greeting to let people know that you’re out of the office, when you will return, and then they can expect to hear from you.

We know you’re busy. It’s not always easy to make the time to return phone calls or reply to emails. Create a block of time during the day that is reserved for returning calls and replying to emails. This creates an uninterrupted time for both you and the client to focus on their needs. You’re less likely to overlook something when you’re focused on the task at hand than if you’re sending a quick response between other projects.

Clients want to hear from you. They want updates. It helps them control their anxiety. What they don’t like, though, is to think that their invoice total is skyrocketing. So, let them know in advance when they will receive updates from you and stick to it. This will help clients know what to expect and it could also reduce the number of phone calls your office gets from clients who just want to know what’s going on.

Don’t Miss a Deadline

To protect your law office from an attorney bar complaint in California, you need to have a system that will help you track and adhere to deadlines. There are several ways that you can do this:

  • Use technology to create electronic ticklers. You can use your online calendar, Outlook Task Manager, or docketing software to create the reminders you need for your deadlines. Of course, setting up the reminders is only effective if you use them. Don’t just automatically dismiss them because you don’t want to see the popup. If necessary, choose a reliable member of your team to get the reminders so that they can tell you what should be on your daily agenda.
  • Create a paper tickler file. To do this, you’ll set up a filing system using cards. Each card will reflect one day of the year. Place your important deadlines on the appropriate card. Check the daily card (as well as the cards for the next seven days) and make a list of what you need to do. The items listed on today’s card must be completed by the end of your workday.
  • Create and use a master calendar. This can be a paper calendar or an electronic calendar, but you just need one calendar where everything is recorded. This will help protect you from important deadlines being missed because you forgot to write it down or you put it on a different calendar. You can still use a separate calendar when you’re on the go, just make sure that the information gets transferred to the master calendar by the end of the day. Make sure that you put recurring tasks, such as weekly meetings or reminders to generate invoices, on the master calendar as well!

Stay on Top of Your Billing

Think about a time where you received a bill that totally surprised you because the total was more than you expected. Your clients don’t want surprises on their bill, either. That often happens because you’re not doing your billing on a daily basis and you’re not staying in contact with clients during the billing cycle.

Your billing should be put into the system every day by either you or someone on your team. Invoices should be sent out the same day of every month. If a client is going to likely exceed their retainer during this billing cycle, contact them and find out what they’d like you to do instead of you sending them a bill larger than they expected.

Track Your CLEs

Make sure that you’re up-to-date with your mandatory CLEs. This is extremely important when it comes to attorney bar complaints in California if they are started by the ethics committee. You can be prosecuted if you don’t keep accurate records of your CLEs or if you fail to complete them. Know your CLE deadline and make sure that you have them completed. Keep your documentation in a place that makes it easy for you to find just in case you’re audited.

Don’t Put These Steps Off

We know that it may seem time consuming to create the systems involved in the five steps above. Think of it as an investment into your future practice. If you’re involved in a bar complaint investigation in California, check out The State Bar Playbook. It’s an interactive guide that can help walk you through the entire process and gives you access to a community who can give you the information you need. If the potential consequences are severe or if you have a history of bar discipline, schedule a consultation with Zavieh Law. We provide both partial scope and full-scope representation.

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