Law Office Management
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Risk Management Just Another Name for Good Office Management

By Patricia Yevics
Director, Law Office Management
Maryland State Bar Association, Inc.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of giving a brief presentation at the Professionalism Course to the new admittees on the importance of establishing good office procedures and systems. While preparing my short list of tips for new attorneys and listening to other presentations at the program, it occurred to me how really critical it is to manage your practice as efficiently as possible and have simple, yet effective, systems in place. This is true for new or experienced practitioners and especially true for solo and small firm practitioners.

The practice of law has become much more stressful. There is an abundance of lawyers, the competition is more fierce, clients are much more demanding and the public is much more critical. It is no longer enough to just be a good lawyer. To successfully manage a practice you need to know about accounting, communications, personnel issues, counseling, marketing, client service, time management, stress management, technology, the information super highway and countless other paradigm shifts.

What, if anything, does law office management have to do with risk management? Everything. Risk management is defined by the insurance industry as controlling damage or loss and minimizing your liability exposure. That can only be accomplished by making certain that you have control over all aspects of your practice.

Nationwide there has been an increase in grievances and claims filed against attorneys in general and solo and small firm practitioners in particular. At the Professionalism Course Kay Kenny, vice-president of Legal Mutual Liability Insurance Society of Maryland, gave the following sobering statistics. According to the National Legal Malpractice Data Center, which was created by the American Bar Association to study the nature and causes of legal malpractice claims,

* Statistics show a claim frequency of once every seven (7) years of practice
* Sole practitioners account for 35% of all claims
* Personal injury plaintiff and real estate practices each account for 25% of claims
* Predominant errors include failure to calendar properly, failure to know the law and failure to obtain the client's consent on matters
In a March 13, 1995 article in Lawyer' Weekly, it was reported that "there are more complaints than ever about lawyers, and small firm lawyers, often overworked and with few staff resources are most at risk, report state disciplinary boards." More and more complaints are a direct result of poor office management. This more likely to happen in solo or small firm practices because they do not have the same internal controls as larger firms.

Fortunately good office management is not magic and can be accomplished by any size or type of firm. If you are just starting your career or practice, make a commitment now to establish good habits from the start. If you are a practicing attorney, you can make adjustments necessary to improve the way you are managing your practice.

* Remember that good office management is something you do every day for as long as you practice law. It is not a list of rules you write in a manual, put on a shelf and then forget to implement.

* There is no one right way to manage your office. The techniques and procedures that you establish should be easy for you to carry out and continue to use every day. Good office management should not be complicated or burdensome to you or anyone who works in your office.

* All of your new policies or techniques do not need to be implemented overnight. They should be eased in gradually with the most critical areas addressed first.

* The policies are not written it stone. If you find that they are not working as smoothly as you would like or that they need to be modified, do it.

* If you have employees, solicit their ideas.


Some areas of your practice that you might want to review to detect where you might need improvement are:
Client Screening:

Do you have a process in place to assist you in determining which clients/cases/matters you can take and that you should avoid or refer to another attorney? Do you have a procedure for discussing fees? Do you send written engagement or fee agreement letters? Do you know what should be done if you do NOT accept a client or matter?

Docket Control:
Do you have an adequate docket control system that includes statute of limitations, administrative hearings, closing dates, court appearances, appointment dates, meeting dates, procedural deadlines, pleading and discovery dates? Do you have a backup or duplicate system?

File Management:
Do you have a procedure (it should be written) for opening and closing cases? Do you have an easy filing system and it is maintained regularly and consistently? Do you have consistent standards, no matter how simple, of how a file should be maintained and how documents should be filed?

Client Relations:
Do you have standards for quality client service such as returning phone calls and communicating with clients? Does everyone in your office know the importance of client service and follow the same standards for client service? Do you document all conversations with clients and send correspondence to clients regarding all major decisions?

Do you have written procedures for billing clients and collecting fees?
Do you have an adequate system for conflict checking?
Do you make certain to handle your trust and general operating accounts correctly making certain to reconcile them monthly and to never co-mingle funds?

The above list is hardly comprehensive. Even if you have the most efficient and organized office in the state, there is no guarantee that there will not be a claim against you. Your life both professionally and personally will be greatly enhanced if you learn to manage your practice efficiently.

If you would like an excellent risk management self audit put out by Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company that can help you is determining your firm's strengths and weaknesses, please contact me at the MSBA at 410-685, 7878, or 800-492-1964, ext 3039.
You may also contact Kay Kenny at Legal Mutual at (800) 422-1370.

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