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In last month’s post, “Kick Off the New Year with a Practice Renovation,” we discussed starting the year with a renewed ethics drive and addressing common problem areas like advertising, insurance and file closures. Picking up where we left off, here are four more trouble spots many law firms stumble over — along with tips on how to shore up weaknesses. The reason we do this is simple: The more streamlined and efficient your practice, the more likely you will plug the holes that often lead to ethics trouble.
For those of us in states requiring ongoing continuing legal education, the term typically elicits a loud groan. It is a pain to keep on top of it. We usually leave it until the last minute, often watching online videos of courses on topics unrelated to our practice to earn credits in time. And it can cost a small fortune. Yet if we certify compliance with our CLE obligations and are not in compliance or cannot prove compliance, huge ethics trouble can ensue. Think suspension from practice and charges of moral turpitude type of trouble.
So put a plan in place for your compliance this year. First, make sure you have no credit deficiencies from past years. If you do, make them up right away and pay the fees. Next, determine your requirements for this year. If you have a multiyear reporting cycle, stay on track by completing a proportionate amount of the total credits this year, so you don’t end up with a crush at reporting time.
This is a great time to find CLE courses that apply to your practice, and to find free resources. Often malpractice insurers provide courses or access to courses for no cost. Your local bar association or section of your state bar can also be sources. Check with local ethics lawyers to see if they put out their own programs, too.
Also, create a CLE recordkeeping system. If your state bar tracks for you, you will need to make sure it receives all certificates and required fees, plus keep track to make sure its records are complete.
Although it’s required for every new matter, somehow client intake is a woefully inadequate process in many law offices. Consider how you can streamline this process. (Related: “Ways to Spruce up Your Intake Process.”)
You can create simple electronic forms using apps like Jotform and Google Forms, among others. Forms ensure you get the same information every time from every client for every matter. Work on integrations where information from the forms gets into your case management software. This may be automatic, through marrying of apps with Zapier, or through a workflow implemented by an assistant.
In the intake process, you can include setting up of files. Take the guesswork out of it and make it efficient by having the same set of files (be they electronic, paper or both) for every matter.
Make sure the intake process also includes receiving a signed engagement letter and communicating your file retention and destruction policy to every client.
So much bar discipline with really harsh consequences could be avoided with careful trust accounting processes and procedures. You should know exactly how much of each client’s money is in your trust account so at any given time you can account for every penny.
This doesn’t mean you need to balance your trust account at the close of business every day. It does mean the proper systems are in place to ensure that no client money is ever missing — and that you can always answer clients’ questions about their funds by looking at your records.
Most case management software packages include some form of trust accounting. In my experience, however, you will still need another solution. Look for trust accounting-specific tools like TrustBooks. Depending on the complexity of your practice and the amount of money passing through your account, you may be able to keep up by using a simple version of Quicken.
The point is not the complexity of your software tools, but rather the accuracy and completeness of your records.
Finally, check your state bar rules on trust accounting. Many have specific types of records you are supposed to keep, including individual client ledgers, that many lawyers are not aware of. The bar may also have a trust accounting class you can take for CLE credit.
For growing firms, the use of contractors and virtual assistants is often critical to expansion (whether it’s social media managers, receptionists, paralegals or other forms of help). If you use outside workers, be sure to check your state’s ethics rules and opinions on this issue. I specifically mention opinions because that’s where a lot of the recent discussion of outside workers is taking place.
The ethics rules have general statements such as the lawyer being responsible for compliance with the rules and for supervision of non-lawyers. But what does that really mean in terms of a social media manager you have never met in-person who posts to your accounts as part of your marketing plan? Or a virtual receptionist who answers client calls and receives privileged information on your behalf?
The rules are not being revised to address these specific situations, but many states are issuing advisory opinions. Their conclusions vary. In the excitement of bringing in help or outsourcing tasks (which tends to be at crunch times), ethics rules might not be top of mind. You should take the time today to check up on the guidance applicable in your state. This may also spur some ideas on how to best employ outside help to make your practice more efficient, ethically sound and profitable.
There are countless possibilities for improving our practices, ethical safeguards and growth. Whatever your particular concerns, there are tools and tips to help address them. May 2018 be a great year!
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