Randy Evans and Shari Klevens, Dentons partners. ()
A new year brings with it the opportunity to review the preceding 12 months and improve upon them. It is the time for personal and professional housecleaning and resolutions. Unfortunately, many of those resolutions, even the important ones, are short-lived. That does not need to be the case. It is possible to make good on your business-improvement plans for the new year.
Resolutions often fail because individuals aim too high without a properly thought-out plan to implement their goals. However, just as the practice of law and the rules that govern the profession are constantly evolving, attorneys can find areas in their professional lives where they can make improvements in 2017.
Some suggested changes and some tips for achieving them are below.
Time is the most important element in the life of a lawyer because attorneys live and die by the calendar. However, when it comes to docketing important deadlines, attorneys may fall short in establishing a foolproof system to prevent time-related errors. Unfortunately, missing a deadline or failing to attend to client interests or demands are easy targets for malpractice plaintiffs, even where no injury or damage results.
The rules of professional conduct attempt to ensure that attorneys safeguard the interests of their clients and not neglect matters entrusted to them. However, even the most careful attorneys may inadvertently fail to comply with a deadline, particularly if a systematic approach is not applied. By adopting a concrete system for docketing, attorneys are much more likely to prevent time-related errors.
Increasingly, docketing mistakes result from attorneys relying on their email system to manage every aspect of their professional lives. Instead of written documents and hard copy calendars containing fewer than a dozen deadlines, attorneys now received hundreds of email communications, all containing time-sensitive demands. In that way, time management in the electronic communication world, requiring the timely response to deadlines, is an old problem but with an entirely new and ever-expanding dimension.
To avoid such errors, attorneys should employ and then re-evaluate their calendars or docket-control systems. An old system that is not working needs to be replaced, not ignored. Effective docket-control systems should help, not hinder, the practice of law. If a docket control system is not doing that, ditch it—now.
Regardless of the system adopted, several factors should be considered before implementing any system to prevent other time-related errors. Attorneys should pick a system that is user-friendly, accurate and reliable to ensure that deadlines are properly calendared and to minimize the risk of error.
Another attorney bad habit that can be broken in 2017 is the use of an email inbox as a calendar tool. Before the emergence of emails, many attorneys used the “pile” system as a “reminder system.” If a file was in a “pile” of documents on the credenza, then the file needed to be looked at sometime this week; on the desk meant that the file needed attention today or tomorrow; and on the attorney’s chair meant that it required action immediately.
The pile system was fraught with risk because it was least effective as a reminder system when attorneys needed it the most. When things were the most frantic, and an attorney needed the most help from a reminder system, the piles were so big and so scattered that they were of little help.
Today, the email inbox is the modern version of the old “pile” system that existed before, fraught with similar peril. With no physical limitation on how big it can get, an inbox can store large quantities of emails that can go unchecked. Thus, a busy attorney can inadvertently miss a deadline because he or she delayed in reading an email.
However, there are two proven solutions to avoid missing deadlines for attorneys dependent on email and the inbox: Adopt a system for reviewing, handling and foldering messages in the inbox; and create a self-imposed numerical limit for the number of emails.
Legal malpractice insurance is a necessity, but not one that most attorneys like to think about—that is, unless you are an insurance lawyer specializing in professional liability.
However, attorneys should not wait until a claim has been made to read their professional liability policies for the first time. By then, it is too late. The best practice is to review legal malpractice policies during the immediate two months before renewal to identify any possible issues and provide adequate time to consider and incorporate adjustments.
Oftentimes an attorney or law firm will add a new practice area and fail to check whether the policy excludes coverage for claims that may arise in that new practice area. Attorneys should review their policy before every renewal to ensure that they have insurance coverage for all their practice areas.
The use of modern technology creates challenges for lawyers, who have a professional duty to maintain client confidences and secrets.
To ensure that client confidences and secrets are kept safe while using mobile devices, law firms and attorneys should devise, adopt and implement effective protocols, practices and procedures specifically addressed to maintain client confidences and secrets.
In regard to mobile phones, law firms and attorneys should use programs that allow them to “remote wipe” data from their devices in the event the device is lost or stolen. Other effective approaches are to use programs that ensure that smartphone data is encrypted; enforce strong password protection for devices that hold data belonging to the firm or its clients; and consider employing features such as GPS tracking and secure file sharing.
Attorneys should also try to avoid using unsecure public wireless networks when accessing sensitive and/or confidential client information.
Engagement letters are important because they set out the parameters of the attorney-client relationship. However, it is important to be clear in engagement letters and, where appropriate, update them or prepare new ones for additional matters.
When individual attorneys use a general engagement letter, such an approach could suggest that the attorney undertook to advise the client on any possible legal issue that arises—far beyond the actual intended scope of the representation.
To avoid such risks, the engagement letter should clearly identify the client, the scope of representation, the duration of the representation, and the fees to be charged for the firm’s services. •