Whether plaintiff or defense oriented, working in the area of litigation or family law, within a large corporation or for a sole practitioner, the attorney-client relationship is one of the most crucial bonds formed during a case. At the outset, it is often a paralegal who serves as the liaison between the client and supervising attorney. A paralegal fosters the attorney-client relationship throughout the case. While the client’s action is ultimately resolved through trial, mediation or settlement, the conclusion of the litigation is not necessarily the end of the client’s relationship with the firm.
A paralegal serves an important role in not only transitioning the file into closed status but also transitioning the client from a current client to a satisfied client. Initially, a paralegal needs to verify a case is ripe for closure. This review includes the completion of all time entries, satisfaction of liens as well as assuring that all fees and costs have been paid. The file must include the appropriate closing paperwork such as original judgments, signed and notarized Releases or time-stamped Orders. While behind the scenes fees and costs are balanced and the receipt of closing documentation verified, continual support and exchange of relevant information to the client by a paralegal can ease any feelings of uncertainty or anxiety. A few additional items to be cognizant of during the final steps of a case are set forth below.
Communication with client: It is crucial to maintain client contact throughout the final stages of litigation. In many instances, the incident or activity was a life changing event for the client. He/she has been on a emotional roller coaster for months (or even years)! Ongoing communication and support will allow the client time to process the outcome of a case. Utilizing listening skills will in turn allow a paralegal to guide the client through the conclusion of a case. Once confirmation is received that the case is concluded, a closing letter should be sent to the client. This closing letter serves a dual purpose for the law firm. While the correspondence notifies the client of the end of representation as well as notification of file retention policies, it may also serve as a marketing tool with respect to future referrals.
Return of personal effects: Original and unique items must be returned to the client. For example, the client may have forwarded to the firm some type of original property during the litigation or defense of a case. This personal property may include financial documents, corporate minute books or family photographs. Return these original items to the client following completion of the case. Maintain an index of the returned items in the office.
Retention/Destruction of Records: Every law firm should have guidelines in place with respect to retention and destruction policies. Appropriate steps need to be taken to protect private and confidential client information– even after the case has concluded. Adhere to proper procedures with respect to the closure, retention and destruction of both paper and electronic records. A paralegal must not only be familiar with in-house policies and procedures as well as applicable federal, state and local rules regarding retention and destruction of files. Remove all duplicate documents from the file. Retain any legal research or relevant documents for your respective forms directory. Arrange for shredding of all medical records and personal documents containing sensitive information, such as employment records and tax returns. The use of checklists may facilitate this process.
Future referrals: Bear in mind that a satisfied client is a source of future referrals. Also, the law firm or corporation may work with the same client at a later date. It is important to maintain an open, working and respectful relationship with the client throughout the case. Word of mouth is powerful marketing tool. The client may refer family, friends or colleagues to the firm or company in the future based upon his/her experience and opinion of the members of the legal team. The willingness of a paralegal to invest time into the working relationship with the client will build the confidence and comfort level of the client well into the final aspects of his/her case. The use of survey forms, questionnaires or newsletters may also serve to grow the client base of the law firm or corporation.
Cases have a beginning, middle and end. While the litigation of a case is the main component, the importance of ongoing communication and adherence to proper file closing, retention and destruction policies should not be discounted. A paralegal must be mindful of legal and ethical obligations when guiding a client of the law firm or corporation through the final stages of a case. This attention to detail may assist in protecting the firm against any potential malpractice actions and ethical pitfalls while also serving to expand the client base through future referral of cases.