|Law Office Management
LOMA : Articles
Staying Out Of Trouble: Everyone Needs a Little Reminder
By Patricia Yevics
Director, Law Office Management Assistance
Maryland State Bar Association
Recently I received a call from a practitioner who had a client file a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission because of a fee issue. This practitioner, while a younger lawyer, was a NOT a NEW lawyer NOR a NEW solo practitioner. While listening to the practitioner I was stunned with the basic mistakes that were made. When I asked how this person could have made these mistakes, the person simply said “I did not know how to do it right.”
I was devastated, especially since I have spent almost 18 years trying to help new and experienced practitioners avoid these types of errors. But I am undeterred. I will keep putting out information about how to run your practice not just efficiently but correctly.
I used to think that it was usually easy to KNOW what the right thing is but much harder to DO the right thing. After listening to some practitioners recently, I am not sure that everyone actually knows the right way of doing things. So, if you are new to solo practice, please read these carefully and if you an experienced practitioner it never hurts to be reminded every now and then. Remember, 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.
- When in doubt "Read the Rules." Have a copy of the Rules handy or know where they are on-line. Your staff should have access to the Rules and be knowledgeable about them. They can be accessed on-line at http://www.courts.state.md.us/legalsites.html.
- The MSBA has an Ethics Committee which has a hotline and those on the hotline each month are listed at http://www.msba.org/departments/membership/ethics_hotline.asp. You can also request a written opinion and all opinions are listed online.
- Trust Accounts can only be titled with the following wording (Rule 16-606) in addition to the name of the attorney: “Clients’ Funds Accounts,” “Attorney Trust Account,” or “Attorney Escrow Account.” According to Glenn Grossman, Bar Counsel, “No other titles are permitted, not even those titled :IOLTA.”
- Glenn Grossman has an excellent article on “Trust Account Recordkeeping” in the January, 2011 issue of the MSBA Bar Journal. If you do not have your January copy and would like a copy of the article, please go to http://www.msba.org/departments/loma/docs/ and click on Practice Management Tips. NOTE: In each issue of the MSBA Bar Journal, there is an Attorney Grievance Commission column. READ IT.
- Have a different color checks for Trust and Operating Accounts. It helps prevent mistakes, when you are in a hurry.
- Deposit all money which you have not yet earned directly and immediately into your trust account. The only money that should be in your trust account should be money that belongs to the client because it has not yet been earned.
- You can NEVER borrow money from your trust account.
- Transfer 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.
- Do not start work without a fee agreement.
- If you use your home computer for client work, it needs to be password protected. Confidentiality is still and issue. It is probably best to have a completely separate computer for client work.
- Always send "I am not your lawyer" letter for any person you did not take as a client.
- 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. Examples of Billing and Collection Policies and Information: http://www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/index.htm under Financial
- Bill monthly, without fail, for all hourly work.
- Keep track of your time even on contingency work in case the client has questions at a later date.
- Send copies of documents to clients. Keep clients informed of what is happening on their cases.
- Do not take a client outside of your expertise. Get help when needed. You can access the MSBA section listservs for help from other practitioners. List of Section Listservs.
- Return all calls. Do not avoid clients. If you cannot deliver what you promised, call the client and explain as soon as possible.
- NEVER lie to a client even about the most insignificant item. (Of course
- You are responsible for the actions of your staff. Make certain your staff understands the concept of confidentiality.
- Be very careful when using email. You do not know where information may be sent. Do not put highly confidential information in an unencrypted email. Last week I received an email 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.
- Make certain that you backup all of your work product including anything that you have done on your laptop and home computer if you use it for work.
- Make certain that you have firewall protection for your computer system if you use email and accept attachments.
- Keep up with changes in the law by attending CLE on legal, technology and management topics.
- If you feel overwhelmed, there is help. You can contact other practitioners, the Law Office Management Assistance office,(Pat Yevics), Jim Quinn at the MSBA Lawyer Assistance Program , the Ethics Hotline or one of the members on the Mentoring List
- Consider joining one of the MSBA Sections and their listservs. These can be invaluable for getting practice information.
- Last but never least, enjoy your work, laugh often and loud and know when perfection is NOT necessary.