By the middle of the year, the hopeful resolutions of the new year have sometimes been abandoned. Attorneys may find themselves falling into old bad habits. Optimistic resolutions regarding organization and other administration tasks can be forgotten as soon as the time-crunch and pressures of practicing law pick up again in the new year.
However, attorneys can improve their practice by making realistic and practical changes at any time of year. Rather than the pie-in-the-sky transformations imagined at the start of a new year, these incremental changes can be more effective when paired with a specific plan for implementation. Below are some suggested “mid-year resolutions” that attorneys may find easier to keep well after the ball has dropped.
Use Email Effectively
Attorneys often rely on their emails to do everything, including to act as both a task list and a calendar. Indeed, after taking time off, a common lament among attorneys is that hundreds or even thousands of unread emails await them upon their return. Without a physical limitation on how big an inbox can get, there is undoubtedly a risk that one important email may go unnoticed.
In order to minimize this risk, attorneys can adopt an orderly system for reviewing and foldering emails. Sometimes, even the simple act of quickly checking an email on a cell phone or tablet can throw off an attorney’s system as a potentially important e-mail requiring follow-up can lose its “unread” status and thus be forgotten by the attorney. The system for reviewing emails accounts can account for the practicalities of how the attorney reviews emails, which includes a consideration of the devices used to review email.
Get Your Docketing System in Order
For all attorneys, one of the greatest source of errors is the simple act of missing a deadline. An improperly-maintained calendar may mean not appealing a matter within the time allotted or inadvertently letting the statute of limitations run. These mistakes are easy targets for malpractice plaintiffs.
Although most attorneys understand the importance of adhering to deadlines, even the most careful attorneys may inadvertently fail to comply with a deadline, particularly if a systematic approach to tracking deadlines is not applied. By adopting a concrete system for docketing, attorneys are much more likely to prevent time-related errors.
Docketing mistakes by attorneys often result from over-reliance on their email system to manage every aspect of their professional lives. Written documents and hard-copy calendars have been replaced by hundreds of email communications, any number of which may contain a time-sensitive demand. Accordingly, advances in technology have only increased the importance of calendar management.
Thus, there is never a bad time for attorneys to re-evaluate their calendar or docket control system. Too often, attorneys do not realize that their system is ineffective until it is too late. By taking the time to ensure that the system is capturing all deadlines, attorneys can ensure that the system is helping, not hindering, their practice.
There are several factors to consider when choosing an appropriate method for calendaring or docketing. Systems that are easy to use, accurate, and reliable will minimize the risk of error.
Double Check Your Insurance Coverage
While most attorneys recognize the importance of obtaining a legal malpractice insurance policy, far fewer attorneys actually understand the coverage that their policy provides. Unfortunately, it is not until a claim is made when attorneys may realize that their coverage is insufficient or ill-suited for their practice.
Rather than simply let policies automatically renew year after year, it can be extremely beneficial to take a look at the coverage provided to determine whether it still reflects the realities of the firm’s practice and whether it provides the coverage the firm needs. Often, an attorney or law firm will add a new practice area and fail to check to see whether the policy excludes coverage for claims that may arise in that new area. In order to avoid losing coverage for claims, the two months immediately prior to renewal every year can be used to confirm that the right coverage is in place.
Mobile Device Security
Because emails and client documents can now be accessed from an endless amount of devices anywhere in the world, mobile device security is important in ensuring that a client’s confidences and secrets do not fall into the wrong hands. However, while technology is constantly changing, a law firm’s protocols, practices, and procedures may not always change at the same pace.
A periodic review of the firm’s policies — perhaps with the assistance of a consultant or expert — can help the firm stay ahead of the ever-changing risks created by new technology
Clean Up Engagement Letters
An engagement letter that has been used by a firm for many years without updating may also be due for an update. Attorneys can consider whether new provisions should be added to reflect changes to their practice. In addition, attorneys can give thought to whether their engagement letters properly reflect the scope of representations. The risk with general engagement letters is that the attorney could be deemed to represent the client on any possible legal issue that arises, far beyond the actual intended scope of the representation. Thus, many attorneys find it helpful to consider narrowly defining the scope of work in future engagement letters. There may also be opportunities to revise existing engagement letters to reflect changes in the scope of the representation (although such revisions may also be subject to other ethical safeguards).
While many of these changes could be characterized as “low-hanging fruit,” they can each dramatically reduce the risks for law firms. And, unlike new year’s resolutions, these changes are realistic and attainable for any firm.
Shari L. Klevens is a partner at Dentons US and serves on the firm’s US Board of Directors. She represents and advises lawyers and insurers on complex claims, is co-chair of Dentons’ global insurance sector team, and is co-author of “California Legal Malpractice Law” (2014). Alanna Clairis a partner at Dentons US and focuses on professional liability defense. Shari and Alanna are co-authors of “The Lawyer’s Handbook: Ethics Compliance and Claim Avoidance.”