Ethical pitfalls for solo and small firm attorneys
Client grievances are more likely to be filed against solos and small firm practitioners than other attorneys, and those lawyers can ill afford to spend time responding, including going to court, given that there are often no colleagues to pick up one’s case for them.
In a recent ABA CLE program, “Ethical Pitfalls for Solo and Small Firm Attorneys,” a panel of experts provided tips to help avoid grievances.
Panelist Paula Frederick, general counsel for the State Bar of Georgia, outlined the problem of the lack of adequate communication with one’s client. The issue of communication is covered in Model Rule 1.4. Rule 1.4.4 relative to “promptly” replying to the client can be tricky and may cause the most problems, said Frederick.
Lawyers can use their staff to help service clients, but attorneys must ensure that unauthorized practice of law does not occur, said panelists.
In order to curtail problems, a lawyer should manage the expectations of his client. In doing so, understanding that there may be generational differences is helpful. Among a generation that routinely uses instant messaging, “promptly” may be a very high bar indeed. Frederick noted that instant messaging is a very casual form of communication, and may not be appropriate for lawyer-client communications.
Discussing expectations and setting parameters at the initial consultation with a client or potential client is wise. A client needs to understand that you may not be reading your e-mail at 9 p.m.
Regular communicating, even when there is nothing new to report on a client’s case is also a good idea. Lawyers may want to send out a letter once each month on a given date, Frederick advised. Clients then know that they are still on their lawyers’ radar screen.
Lawyers can use their staff to help service clients, but they should ensure they’re properly trained, continued Frederick. Staff can answer many questions about upcoming court dates and similar administrative issues. It is the staff who often have the client’s file, after all, but a lawyer as supervisor needs to make sure that unauthorized practice of law does not occur.
While lawyers are often reluctant to talk about money, panelists said it’s a must. Not doing so leaves the door open to clients being surprised when bills come, and can lead to their filing grievances.
Back to top
Two additional tips offered by Frederick: “Don’t practice in isolation” and “Treat people with respect.” Solos may not have colleagues down the hall from them, but there are resources available. SoloSez, a LISTSERV available to ABA members and non-members alike, allows lawyers to post questions and solicit input from fellow solos or small firm practitioners. Additional bar resources include law practice management assistance and a venue to develop mentor relationships. As to treating clients with respect: “Be firm, but treat them with respect. If you’re wrong, apologize,” said Frederick.
Jeffrey Allen, principal of Graves & Allen in Oakland, Calif., provided additional advice. He cautioned that no form of communication, other than sitting in the same room as a client, is completely secure. He noted that while e-mail has its potential dangers, snail mail sometimes doesn’t reach its destination and can also be “hacked.”
Another tip from Allen: “If you’re using technology, use it properly and have the adequate training.”
The CLE program was sponsored by the General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division, Center for Professional Responsibility, and Center for Continuing Legal Education.
In addition to Frederick and Allen, Judge Jennifer Rymell, Tarrant County Court of Law #2, Fort Worth, Texas, served as a panelist; James L. Schwartz, James L. Schwartz & Associates, Chicago, moderated the program.