At the beginning of every year, it is often useful for the workers’ compensation practitioner, and attorneys in general, to take inventory of routines and habits and replace areas of vice with virtue. This will add peace and certainty to attorney and client alike. Given that the focus of this column is generally workers’ compensation, the suggestions mentioned below are geared to that practice. However, many are broadly applicable to any area of the law.
A few years back, this space was dedicated to this very issue and revisited a year later. However, given that the practice of law and human nature in general warrant a constant commitment to good habits, a review of the same possible New Year’s resolutions may be of some benefit. Therefore, offered for your consideration (again), with new justifications, are some potentially timeless resolutions:
• Return client phone calls in a timely manner. Almost everyone who practices law is guilty of failing to promptly return a phone call at some time or another. When the failure to return calls timely becomes the practice, rather than the exception, it is time to resolve to act differently. Without question, this is the main frustration of disgruntled clients. What your client thinks is important and what you believe requires a response are usually two completely different things. However, the client is always right. A colleague of mine has a saying: “If your lawyer does not call you back within one day, he shouldn’t be your lawyer.” While this may be a bit extreme, it is difficult to argue with the logic.
• Return colleague phone calls in a timely manner. If a colleague calls to obtain information that you are waiting on, it is very tempting to delay returning the phone call until after new information is received. It may seem like a waste of time to simply call someone, only to say, “I still have not heard back from my client,” or some similar comment. However, when repeated phone calls are made to a professional, the “professional” thing to do is to return the phone call in a timely manner, or at least make it clear that a phone call will only be made when new information is received. In the practice of law, as in most areas of life, communication is essential. Even a quick email letting the colleague know there is no new information can be helpful if time does not warrant a phone call. Either way, if you have ever been frustrated by a fellow attorney not returning a phone call, remember the golden rule when being tempted to ignore one.
• Be on time for hearings and depositions. A story that bears reiterating comes from the now-closed Northeast Hearing Office. After being late for a hearing and providing an apology and a reason, I saw the judge jot something down and jokingly indicate, “forty-three.” I asked, 43 what? With that, she read from a list she had created of 43 unique excuses for untimeliness given to her that morning. While the judge was very understanding given the high-volume nature of the workers’ compensation practice and obviously took the whole thing in stride, there are many ways to prevent tardiness or at least let people be aware that you will be running late. Usually this involves a phone call to a colleague. See the second resolution above.
• Join the Philadelphia Bar Association. If you are already a member of America’s oldest chartered metropolitan bar association, then join the workers’ compensation section. If your firm will not pay for the extra fee, you would be well advised to cover it yourself. If you attended the section’s holiday party and do not belong, this is a resolution you should make right now. The mission of the Philadelphia Bar Association and the workers’ compensation section remain to serve the profession and the public by promoting justice, professional excellence and respect for the rule of law. The benefits of bar and section membership are too numerous to list here. If you want to be a part of the solution, please resolve this year to join and visit the bar association’s website at www.philadelphiabar.org.
• Take some cases with no prospect of a fee. If someone comes to your firm for help with a viable, non-fee generating case, consider taking it. Irrespective of whether taking a case makes business sense, consider that if a person needs help, you may be the only person who will be willing to offer it. The practice of workers’ compensation does not lend itself well to pro bono cases, given the contingency fee structure. However, many or most clients are truly indigent. Therefore, the ability to provide all people with appropriate access to the legal system, whether their case is a paying one or not, is just as relevant in workers’ compensation practice. Rule 6.1 of the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer should render public interest legal service and discharge this responsibility by providing professional services at no fee or a reduced fee to persons of limited means. If a case is to recover medical bills only or is perceived as too difficult to win, it would fulfill this professional responsibility. If access to justice for all is the primary concern, the fees will take care of themselves.
• Join a gym. Oh, wait. This has nothing to do with the practice of law. This New Year’s resolution is only here to highlight the fact that most New Year’s resolutions quickly become broken. This is largely provable by the countless invoices for gym memberships being sent all over the country to people who stopped going last February. The issues above will always remain a struggle in the practice of law (except for the Philadelphia Bar Association membership, which can be taken care of in the next few minutes). Resolving to make one’s custom and practice better is always necessary, even if it seems redundant.
Perhaps none of the suggestions above presents a problem to the reader. Nonetheless, January 3 is as good a time as any to take inventory of one’s law practice and decide where to improve. Your colleagues will thank you. Your staff will thank you and you will provide a better service to all who come to you for representation. Happy New Year! •
Christian Petrucci is a solo practitioner and past co-chairman of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s workers’ compensation section. He concentrates his practice in workers’ compensation litigation and Social Security disability.