Tips to Improve Your Law Practice Next Year
Lisa Shapson, The Legal Intelligencer (online)
On the first day of the holiday season, my favorite client gave to me . . . oh, everyone knows that tune. Let’s just cut to the chase and fast-forward to the 12th day:
On the 12th day of the holiday season, my favorite client gave to me . . .
Twelve urgent questions (about last January’s bill),
Eleven irrelevant comments (from his mother),
Ten lengthy emails (from his cousin, who used to be an attorney),
Nine boxes of bank statements (for digesting before next week’s hearing-client is self-employed),
Eight IRS notices (for years of non-filing),
Seven support witnesses (for next week’s hearing),
Six pages a la Facebook (again, the spouse and paramour),
Five emergency messages (he needs to get back to his mother),
Four urgent emails (with read receipts),
Three unannounced visits (what do I think of the photos),
Two naked photos (his spouse and paramour); and
A check for redeposit next week.
If this rendition of a holiday favorite is reminiscent of a year-end review of your law practice, here are some helpful tips to make next year better:
• Review your firm’s fee agreement. Make sure your contract for representation is clear and comprehensive. Double-check compliance with state rules of professional conduct regarding reasonable attorney fees-Rules 1.5 in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. What makes some clients “favorites,” facetiously, is that they are time-consuming due to the emotional level of their matter, not necessarily because of the legal piece of their case. While it is often difficult for clients to draw a line between their emotions and legalities, which is understandably so, especially in family law cases, as attorneys, it is our job to explain to clients what is relevant and what is not to keep them from exhausting funds needed for their representation.
• Make every client a true favorite. Quickly returning telephone calls or emails and always keeping clients reasonably informed about the status of their case helps to calm their emotions from the beginning. Beside the fact that clients are entitled to communication with their attorneys, it is helpful for the client’s state of mind to be aware of the facts and not have to wonder about what is happening with his or her case. So the saying goes, an idle brain is the devil’s playground. Empower clients with knowledge. Giving up-to-date statuses leaves less for the imagination or heart to worry about–Rules 1.3 and 1.4 in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. If you don’t have time to get back to clients right away, have a staff member contact them with your schedule and when they can expect to hear from you, or relay information to your paralegal for conveying to clients on your behalf. And don’t hesitate to set boundaries for unannounced visits or after-hours telephone calls.
• Have honest powwows with clients. Cover the overall cost of their cases given the circumstances presented both at the beginning and periodically throughout your representation–Rule 2.1 in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Refer clients to the written fee agreement and remind them that you are there to help with all aspects of the case, but that they are paying for your legal expertise. Suggest that they speak to a friend or mental health professional to filter the emotional side of the litigation. Emphasize that you are not trying to blow them off; but, rather, you are better serving them in the long run by helping them focus only on relevant issues–or issues the court will entertain if the case must be litigated. Help them see the big picture, especially whether litigating certain issues would be cost-effective or cost-prohibitive.
• Don’t speak with third parties without your client’s consent. A client’s sharing a third-party email is not their consent to engage in any type of conversation with that third party. While we want to make things seamless for our clients, particularly the troubled ones, we must remember to get every client’s specific consent before speaking to third parties such as mothers or cousins. Even if the third party gets to us first and tells us that our client asked her or him to call us, we need informed consent, preferably in writing, directly from the client–Rule 1.6 in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
• As for those IRS notices and bank statements–Rules 1.15 in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey–lawyers are required to protect the confidentiality of that information by securing those physical documents while in their possession. Moreover, Rule 1:38 in New Jersey requires attorneys to redact personal identifiers such as Social Security numbers from all public documents, like tax returns, before attaching those documents to any filing. And, although this may sound like lawyering 101, make sure those boxes are secure within your office-no client documents should be kept in common areas where other clients could see a label. Remember your duty to supervise non lawyer assistants–Rules 5.3 in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey–not only with regard to securing physical documents, but with keeping details of the client’s case confidential.
• Lastly, do not forget to remind clients that all forms of social media, and texts, are not proper forums in which to release their emotions and that those forums are discoverable. Advise clients that regardless of how difficult the process, there is no need to inform others electronically of personal feelings or to slander or defame their opponent on social media.
No matter in what stage of the breakup clients arrive, each knows that our job is to process their legal matter and that we are not licensed to help them navigate their relationship battles. But clients involved in custody, divorce, support and protection from abuse matters sometimes need gentle reminders. Being up front with them from the beginning, consistently referencing and standing by the terms of the fee agreement when necessary and adhering to the rules of professional conduct should result in both happier clients and happier practitioners. And happy clients are paying clients, so here’s to a happier new year.
Reprinted with permission from the DECEMBER 28, 2015 issue of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER (online). © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved.
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