Inexperience with Certain Areas of the Law
It is a situation that starts simply enough: a family member or friend contacts you with a “simple” request—to assist with the preparation of a Last Will and Testament. The request sounds harmless—how difficult could it be to prepare a will? But you specialize in real estate law, and you have never prepared a will before. New attorneys need to be aware of their limitations when a request is made for legal services, even if it is for a family member or friend. Although preparing a simple will sounds innocent, a wide array of malpractice traps can arise, including ignoring tax-related issues, state law that may require specific language in a will, or the necessary language to achieve the client’s wishes in the dispositive provisions of the will. New attorneys should be able to spot these shortcomings and, at a minimum, seek the assistance of another attorney more versed in the practice area before proceeding.
Keeping Track of Your Billable Time
Whether you are a solo practitioner or at a firm, keeping and entering your time billable to clients is the lifeblood of the legal business. Time must be regularly entered and billed to clients in order to survive from a business perspective. Best practices should be to keep track of your billing time on a daily basis, whether it is using a time management computer software system or the old fashioned way using pen and paper. Failure to develop a regular system for entering time could lead to the loss of revenue for the valuable time you spent on legal matters that do not end up getting billed to clients.
It sounds easy, but returning phone calls, e-mails, and other correspondence for client-related matters on a timely basis should not be taken for granted. After all, the legal business is a service business, and failure to respond to communication in a timely manner could lead to clients’ finding other legal representation or referral sources’ sending their business elsewhere. Consider devoting a set time every day to respond to all communication from the prior 24 hours that you have not yet had an opportunity to get to. Like keeping regular time records, regularly devoting time to communicate for client-related business will go a long way to a successful legal practice.
Keeping Track of Developments in the Law
In specialized areas of the law, especially those areas related to taxes, the law is constantly changing. It is critical for lawyers to stay abreast of the evolving trends in the law in which the attorney practices. Not only is it important to stay current with changes in the law, but it is also important to apply those changes to any documents you are reviewing or preparing. As a new attorney, it is easy to rely on old boilerplate language from a document that someone at your firm previously prepared or from a draft document you received from another source. New attorneys should read these documents with a close attention to detail to determine whether changes in the law have made such documents outdated or incorrect and whether they need to be edited to conform with existing law.
Getting Paid by Clients
Perhaps one of the most maddening aspects of the practice of law is making sure your outstanding receivables for client work are collected. After all, you have put in all of your time on the matter, so you should be rewarded for such work by making sure you properly get paid for it. If a client does not respond to invoices as they are sent out, it is a good idea to keep the line of communication open with the client. Perhaps the client misplaced the invoice or just has not gotten around to paying it yet, or maybe the client needs to work out a payment plan. Establishing an open line of communication will go a long way and will give you an alternative possibility to withdraw from representation if the client continues to fail to respond. To keep this from happening in the future, you may want to consider setting a policy that requires a retainer when accepting new client matters. In any new engagement, it may be best to require that at least one-half of the anticipated costs be paid down before work begins, regardless if the matter is on a flat fee or an hourly basis.