This time of year, many lawyers are reflecting on the wins and losses of the past year. You may wonder how to make next year even better. Few New Year’s resolutions will be more impactful than those you make to protect your future. Secure a brighter future for your professional reputation and law career next year with these top 10 best practices New Year’s resolutions for lawyers.
1. Screen Your Clients
Resolve to properly screen clients this year. When it comes to lawyers who have been sued for legal malpractice, many often say they knew from the first meeting that the client was going to be a problem. Use a client screening checklist to objectively and thoroughly vet prospective clients. Scrutinize previous attorneys relationships, expectations for representation, credibility and ability to pay. Don’t let the possibility of a big payout cloud your judgement.
2. Avoid Dabbling
Avoid being a jack of all trades (and a master of none) and do not dabble in unfamiliar legal areas. Some areas of law, like Estate, Probate and Trust are very complex and you may face a claim if you do not understand the nuances. For example, a “simple” will may have significant tax ramifications for the testator’s estate. Make a resolution to offer a referral to a specialized practitioner for unfamiliar areas. If you do decide to take on a case, make sure you are fully cognizant of the law.
3. Use Engagement Letters
Many attorney malpractice claims involve scope of engagement. Without an engagement letter on file, it’s difficult to maintain the attorney wasn’t retained to perform certain services. This year, make a point to use engagement letters. Define who the client is (and is not), the services within (and outside) the scope of engagement and the agreed upon hourly rate.
4. Send Out Closing Letters
Resolve to send out closing letters at the end of every representation to confirm that work has now ceased and that the current client is now a former client. Closing letters are an important tool in risk management, as they begin the statute of limitations. Don’t leave it up to the client to determine the status of your representation.
5. Communicate with Clients
Make the effort this year to be more responsive. Do your utmost to return phone calls, respond to emails and update your availability. Neglect is one of the primary, if not the top reason for bar grievances across the U.S. Many claimants cite unreturned phone calls and being in the dark about the status of their case. Responsiveness is a habit that can make you a better lawyer and reduce your liability risk.
6. Practice Regular Monthly Billing
Resolve to keep up with your monthly billing. Untimely billing is the most preventable basis for a client fee dispute, particularly when sizeable bills are sent late. Be proactive and discuss big-ticket items upfront. Strive to get a realistic retainer at the onset of representation, so you don’t have to constantly follow up about a bill, which can drive a wedge between attorney and client. Then send invoices out on time.
7. Limit Texting with Clients
Commit to a high level of professionalism in all client communications. Use texting for logistical purposes like setting appointments, confirming court times and responding to simple questions. For complex questions, tell clients you need time to research and will call them later with a detailed answer. You’ll avoid a misguided text message that could be ammunition in a legal malpractice case, where encryption and preservation issues could also surface.
8. Practice Wellness
Make a resolution to practice wellness for the good of your health as well as your law practice. Often, malpractice claims cite wellness issues, and the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being has revealed that the legal profession is suffering from a host of difficulties, including alcohol dependency, depression, anxiety, stress and social isolation. Take the Task Force’s recommendations to heart and “place health, resilience, self-care and helping others at the forefront of what it means to be a lawyer.”
9. Attend to Your Mistakes
Resolve to handle your mistakes proactively. Even the best attorneys can make an error. The key is to not ignore it, hoping it goes away. Contact your malpractice claims professional. They may be able to help you mitigate or rectify the mistake. Ensure you ethically advise your client of the matter and don’t wait until a lawsuit is filed to contact your carrier.
10. Document Your File
Make your last legal resolution for next year proper documentation of your files. A written record of what transpired during representation is crucial in the event of a malpractice claim. Document an agreed plan via letters, emails and detailed billing statements. Avoid a he said/she said situation by documenting the client’s acceptance or rejection and understanding of your advice.
This year, protect the legal practice and reputation you’ve worked so hard to build by implementing these New Year’s resolutions into your legal practice.
2019 Copyright Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. This article is intended to be used for general informational purposes only and is not to be relied upon or used for any particular purpose. Swiss Re shall not be held responsible in any way for, and specifically disclaims any liability arising out of or in any way connected to, reliance on or use of any of the information contained or referenced in this article. The information contained or referenced in this article is not intended to constitute and should not be considered legal, accounting or professional advice, nor shall it serve as a substitute for the recipient.