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Last year, Bill Spratt, a partner in the Miami office of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, was considering launching a health care consulting business to supplement his health care-oriented law practice. He vaguely realized that starting a nonlegal ancillary business could raise conflict-of-interest issues. A colleague recommended that he discuss the idea with the Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service (LOMAS), which provides free phone consultations for Florida Bar members. To his surprise, Spratt learned from a LOMAS adviser that, under Florida Bar rules, ancillary businesses cannot share phone lines or computer networks with their parent law firms because of potential breaches of confidentiality for the law firm’s clients. “It was eye-opening,” he says of the advice he received. Ultimately, Spratt decided against starting the business, in part because of the problems LOMAS pointed out. Unlike Spratt, many attorneys charge ahead with business plans without seeking expert advice, only to find themselves in violation of Bar rules, says Rjon Robins, one of two management advisers at LOMAS’ headquarters in Tallahassee. Such infractions of Bar rules are punishable by warnings, suspension, or even disbarment. The Florida Bar founded LOMAS in 1980 to head off such problems. The program, the first of its type in the U.S., was based on a lawyer assistance model pioneered in Australia. The Bar tapped J.R. Phelps, then a certified public accountant with a big accounting firm, to launch LOMAS, which since has been copied by many state bar groups across the country. The office has grown to include Phelps and two staffers — Robins, a young attorney who left solo practice to join LOMAS three years ago, and Judy Equels, a law office management consultant formerly with Miami-based Greenberg Traurig and Washington, D.C.-based Hildebrandt International, a law firm consulting company. AVOIDING MISSED DEADLINES Together, they field 10,000 calls for help a year. The most common questions concern conflict of interest, malpractice, trust accounting compliance and new office technology. All consultations are confidential. Such help can be critical because nearly half of all malpractice suits filed against Florida attorneys result from administrative or management mistakes, like missing a legal filing deadline, Robins says. “It’s the little oversights that will get an attorney suspended or disbarred,” says John Berry, director of the new Center of Professionalism Programs at the University of Florida law school, which soon will begin offering law office management training for practicing lawyers. “Lawyers could avert heartache and millions of dollars in malpractice suits if they took the time to learn sound business procedures,” Robins says. He argues that attorneys need to learn about law office management while they’re still in law school. But schools generally don’t teach business skills. The need for such training is particularly acute for sole practitioners, who make up more than half of the state’s practicing lawyers, he notes. Lawyers can receive a phone consultation from LOMAS for free. Those who need further help can request an on-site inspection of their firm. Solo offices pay about $900 for this; the fee increases with the size of the office. LOMAS performs about 100 full-day, on-site consultations a year. Operating LOMAS costs the Bar about $200,000 annually. Legal business mistakes come in many varieties. While some might seem amusing to outsiders, they are no laughing matter to the lawyers grappling with these problems. For example, a lawyer recently called LOMAS in a panic because he could not pull up a client’s bill on his personal computer software program. “The lawyer was literally screaming into the phone because he couldn’t get an accurate bill,” Phelps recalls with a chuckle. After speaking with LOMAS, the attorney discovered that he had bought the wrong program for the type of bookkeeping he needed. Sometimes legal secretaries or other administrative employees are to blame. Phelps remembers one chagrined attorney who called LOMAS because he missed a client’s hearing. He asked a LOMAS adviser to come out and set up his computer system to ensure that his court hearing dates were calendared properly. It turned out that his secretary was not counting weekend days in calculating filing deadlines. Due to recurrent problems like this, LOMAS advisers often interview all the secretaries in a law office to make sure they are following proper procedures. CONSIDERING HIRING A MANAGER While receiving advice from LOMAS can be helpful, Phelps recommends that firms with 10 or more lawyers consider hiring an office administrator rather than having a committee of partners try to manage. Lawyers are under too much billable-hour pressure to spend enough time on the business side, he contends. LOMAS is a valuable resource for lawyers starting a practice, says Jay Foonberg, a Santa Monica, Calif., attorney who wrote “How to Start & Build a Law Practice,” the all-time best-seller among American Bar Association publications. But even lawyers who use LOMAS may still need to hire their own business consultant or staff manager, he agrees. LOMAS also sells management books and videotapes to attorneys who prefer to solve their own problems. The publications and tapes, ranging in price from $20 to $80, include titles such as “Starting on Your Own” and “Designing Your Law Office.” The ABA also publishes a wide range of materials on marketing and office management. One day soon, attorneys may be able to turn to their local law school for business help. University of Florida’s Center of Professionalism Programs, still in development, will offer noncontinuing legal education credit classes to students, alumni and practicing attorneys on the operation of a law office, and give them practice in interacting with mock employees and clients. “Our goal is to really build up lawyers’ interpersonal skills,” says Berry, the center’s director, who previously headed the Bar’s lawyer regulation department. Phelps says LOMAS will continue to search for new and better ways to help Bar members. LOMAS recently posted a client intake form on the Bar’s Web site, http://www.flabar.org, to help attorneys better determine their clients’ needs — as well as identify potentially troublesome clients. “We lawyers need a hotline like LOMAS at all times,” Bill Spratt says. “Without that timely guidance, lawyers will just try to figure these things out themselves.” And experience has shown that’s about as smart as serving as your own lawyer. Florida Bar members can call LOMAS at (850) 561-5616, or e-mail its advisers at [email protected]or jdeque[email protected].

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