Outsourcing for Ethics Compliance
Notice the title of this post: It is not “Outsourcing Ethics Compliance.” That you may not do. Rather, it is “Outsourcing for Ethics Compliance,” the idea being to send work out to help ensure you meet your ethics obligations.
What Is Outsourcing?
In the past, “outsourcing” brought to mind images of large offices filled with workers on telephones, most likely overseas, fielding customer service center phone calls. While that is still a component of the outsourcing industry, it is not what I have in mind when I suggest using outsourcing in your law firm business.
Outsourcing today includes very different types of services, from contract lawyers to virtual receptionists. It is simply sending out work you would otherwise do yourself. If you drop your laundry at the laundromat’s by-the-pound counter, you’re outsourcing your laundry. And if you need someone to answer your phone, you can outsource that as well.
Outsourcing for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers
For solo and small firm lawyers, some of the best outsourcing available is for tasks that eat up a lot of your time, are critical to your practice’s success, and are irritating enough that they do not get the attention they demand. These tasks include answering the phone, returning phone calls, timekeeping, billing and file management.
Virtual receptionists and virtual assistants will gladly take on these types of tasks for you, without you ever having to hire a staff member. Virtual receptionists will answer your phone at hours you specify, return phone calls as you request, and deliver messages to you by email or text. Virtual assistants will go even further, handling office administration tasks like billing, time records and even managing electronic files.
These types of tasks are essential to running any successful law practice. Potential and current clients will be impressed by a friendly receptionist taking their calls and delivering their messages, and clients will appreciate a live phone call from your receptionist (instead of an email) keeping them updated on their matters. So, a virtual receptionist can not only free up your time but may also improve your image with clients. Similarly, having someone help with billing can improve your cash flow.
Lawyers can go further by outsourcing occasional overflow work as needed to lawyers or paralegals who work on a contract basis. This is like having a staff member on call when you need assistance, but without the burden of paying a full salary when you may only need them occasionally.
What This Has to Do With Ethics
It is all well and good to see how outsourcing some daily tasks can be efficient or even profitable, but how does it tie into ethics? Failure to keep up with these outsourceable tasks is the foundation of many state bar complaints:
Communications. One of the biggest complaints against lawyers is that they fail to communicate with clients. While email has made this much easier to do, it is still critical that we answer our phones and return our phone messages. Simple as this sounds, it can be overwhelming for some lawyers, especially if they are practicing truly solo. Having a virtual receptionist to take calls, deliver messages and return calls as needed can be a tremendous asset in keeping clients informed.
Billing. It is another source of countless complaints — failing to keep adequate records, billing sporadically, neglecting to keep clients updated on the status (or amount) of their bill, and similar behavioral shortcomings. A virtual assistant who keeps the practice’s timekeeping software up to date, prepares invoices in a regular and timely fashion, and corresponds with clients regarding their bills would be invaluable. Not only will collections likely improve if these tasks are done correctly and on time, but the likelihood of a bar complaint plummets when accurate bills are being sent regularly.
Disorganization. This is a very broad category that can lead to ethics trouble. So many lawyers do not maintain clean, organized client files, either in paper or electronic form. Paper filing is becoming less and less the issue; today, the cluttered hard drive or cloud drive is the lawyer’s enemy when a client comes asking for a copy of “the file.” (See “What Exactly Is the File?”) Disorganization can also lead to missed deadlines and mistakes in substantive work. The benefit of having someone help organize your electronic files should be obvious.
Overflow. Lastly, when a lawyer is overwhelmed by too much work (a problem many solos dream of having), charges of failing to perform with competence are all too often around the bend. Hiring a contract lawyer or a paralegal service to help pick up the slack when this happens can head off problems with the substance of your work.
Where Do I Sign Up?
Beneficial as outsourcing can be for your practice, how do you get started? For the names of trusted outsourcing vendors, turn to resources such as your state bar (including practice management advisors), local bar and bar sections, as well as colleagues. (Sometimes organizations may offer discounts, too.) Online reviews, particularly of virtual services, can be useful in sifting through the options.
No matter how you come to find your first outsourcing vendor, with the way the practice of law continues to evolve, most likely it will not be the last one you hire.
Megan Zavieh focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing limited scope representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action, and guidance to practicing attorneys on questions of legal ethics. At age 21, she earned her J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Megan is admitted to practice in California, New York and New Jersey, as well as in Federal District Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. In "On Balance," Megan writes about the issues confronting lawyers in the new world of practicing law. She blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.