Like many of you, I am on some Email Lists that are specific to my position
here at the MSBA. Recently, someone asked if the group had tips on how
practitioners can stay out of trouble in their practices. As I was writing
some tips, I thought it might be a good idea to share some of these ideas.
None of these tips are radical or new. If you are new to solo practice
you may not have heard these tips, and if you are an experienced practitioner
they bear repeating. I am also providing you with the wisdom of many others
whose tips can be printed in this column. (We are a lively list.)
My husband has a saying: “If you do the right thing, you can never lose.” As much as I hate to admit that my husband is right about anything (except marrying me), he is 100 percent right about this. It is usually (but not always) easy to know what the right thing is but much harder to do the right thing. Doing the right thing does more than just keep you out of trouble, it allows you sleep better at night and take more relaxing vacations.
Without further introduction, here are some very basic suggestions for you to consider. They are in no particular order, or rather they are in the order in which they popped into my head. (Scary, isn’t it?) Heeding them will make it much easier to avoid trouble, sleep at night and enjoy your vacation.
1. If you use your home computer for client work, it needs to be password protected. Confidentiality is still an issue. It is probably best to have a completely separate computer for client work.
2. Always send an “I am not your lawyer” letter for any person you did not take as a client. Do not start work without a fee agreement.
3. When in doubt, “read the Rules.” Have a copy of the Rules handy or know where they are online. Your staff should have access to the Rules and be knowledgeable about them. They can be accessed online at www.courts.state.md.us/legalsites.html.
4. Have different colored checks for Trust and Operating Accounts. It helps prevent mistakes, particularly when you are in a hurry.
5. Have a written billing and collection policy, and share that information with the client or potential client at one of the first meetings. Explain the billing process in detail to the potential client. For examples of Billing and Collection Policies and Information, visit www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/index.htm under “Financial”.
6. Bill monthly, without fail, for all hourly work.
7. Keep track of your time, even on contingency work, in case the client has questions at a later date.
8. Send copies of documents to clients. Keep clients informed of what is happening on their cases.
9. Do not take a client outside of your expertise. Get help when needed. You can access the MSBA section Email Lists for help from other practitioners (www.msba.org/sec_comm/lists/index.htm).
10. (I stole this one from somewhere else but I do not remember where) Do not take every potential client that walks in the door. Some potential clients to avoid:
- Those who have had three or four previous attorneys
- Those who have unrealistic expectations
- Those who bash lawyers (even jokingly)
- Those who need serious handholding
- Those who act as though they know the law or have a brother-in-law who once went to law school
- Those who are looking for revenge or who have seriously hurt feelings
- Those who make the legal fees a serious issue
11. Return all calls. Do not avoid clients. If you cannot deliver what you promised, call the client and explain as soon as possible.
12. Never lie to a client, even about the most insignificant item. (Of course.)
13. You are responsible for the actions of your staff. Make certain your staff understands the concept of confidentiality.
14. Be very careful when using email. You do not know where information may be sent. Do not put highly confidential information in an unencrypted e-mail. Last week, I received an e-mail from a member I know, but when I read it, it was obvious it was not intended for me. I sent it back and confirmed that it was not for me.
15. (From the Colorado Bar) Beware of unreal expectations by getting the clients to tell you their expectations, in writing, as part of your intake questionnaire. You can phrase it something like, “In a perfect world, what would be the best possible result” (include a question specifically about money – it is applicable). At this point, what would be an acceptable result? If the expectations are unrealistic, explain this to the client and decide if you want to take this client.
16. (From the Colorado Bar) Ask about “skeletons in the closet” – in other words, “Whether it is true or not, what could the other side use against us.” This is based on a personal story told to me by a member. He was representing a woman in a custody battle. It came to trial, and the other side asked, “Is it true you were employed last year.” (The answer was yes). He followed up with a question: “Isn’t it true you were employed as a prostitute?” (The answer was yes). Obviously, the attorney’s jaw dropped. When he was able to speak to his client in the hallway, he asked her why she’d never mentioned before that she’d worked as a prostitute. Her answer? “You never asked. I didn’t think it would ever come out.”
17. Deposit all money which you have not yet earned directly and immediately into your trust account.
18. Take money from your trust account to your operating account only as you earn it. Explain the process to the client. Let the client know when you have transferred money and the balance of the trust account.
19. When in doubt, check the MSBA Ethics Opinions online, contact the Ethics Hotline or post a question to a Section Email List. There is no reason to make a mistake.
20. Make certain that you back up all of your work product, including anything that you have done on your laptop and home computer if you use it for work.
21. Make certain that you have firewall protection for your computer system if you use e-mail and accept attachments.
22. Keep up with changes in the law by attending CLE on legal, technology and management topics. A great source of information is the 9th Annual Solo and Small Firm Conference, Friday and/or Saturday, November 2 and 3 at the BWI Marriott. Friday’s “Paperless Office Program” is limited to 50 attendees (www.soloconference.org).
23. If you feel overwhelmed, there is help. You can contact other practitioners, the Law Office Management Assistance office (email@example.com), the MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program (www.msba.org/sec_comm/committees/lawyerassist/), the Ethics Hotline or one of the members on the Mentoring List (www.msba.org/sec_comm/mentor/mentor.asp).
24. Last, but never least, enjoy your work, laugh often and loud, and know when perfection is not necessary.