Ending the Attorney-Client Relationship

Calling all Oregon lawyers: are you taking advantage of your right to file a “notice of termination of relationship?”

ORS 9.380(2) was amended in 2011 to allow withdrawal by filing a simple notice, provided two conditions are met. First, the case must be concluded, meaning a final determination or judgment has been entered. Second, all services required of the lawyer under the fee agreement must be complete.

“The relationship of attorney and client may be terminated after the entry of a judgment or other final determination in an action or proceeding by the filing of a notice of termination of the relationship in the action or proceeding. The notice must be signed by the attorney and must state that all services required of the attorney under the agreement between the attorney and the client have been provided.”

The amendment eliminates the step of filing a formal motion with the court.

Why You Should File Notices of Termination

Take advantage of ORS 9.380(2) at the conclusion of your cases. File a notice of termination and remove yourself as attorney of record. This is especially important in practice areas where matters could reopen or require future steps.  Family law is notorious for post-judgment activity (contempt actions, modifications, and the like).  Criminal law practitioners may or may not be responsible for filing motions to dismiss when a one-year diversion agreement is completed.  If your agreed-upon services do not include filing the dismissal, withdraw. ORS 9.390 makes clear you are on the hook until the notice is filed:

“When an attorney is changed, or the relationship of attorney and client is terminated, as provided in ORS 9.380, written notice of the change or termination shall be given to the adverse party. Until the notice is given, the adverse party is bound to recognize the former attorney.”

Comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct

Satisfying ORS 9.380(2) isn’t the only step.  You must also comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Oregon RPC 1.16(d) provides:

“Upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interests, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance payment of fee or expense that has not been earned or incurred. The lawyer may retain papers, personal property and money of the client to the extent permitted by other law.”

At the conclusion of a case, the timing issues may be less critical – assuming the client does not wish to purse an appeal – but the remainder of the rule must be followed.  To learn more about this topic, and how to properly disengage, see: How to Fire a Client.

[All Rights Reserved 2015 Beverly Michaelis]

 

 

Avoiding eCourt – Waivers and eFiling “Lawyer Buddies”

Oregon eCourt is nothing less than revolutionary.  It is transforming how we file pleadings, meet deadlines, pay filing fees, and access court documents.  For those who were hoping to retire or transition to another career before eCourt became mandatory, the change is especially rough.

Initially, eCourt requires an investment – buying a scanner and purchasing software.  It also demands that lawyers learn new technology and adapt to changing court rules and practices.

If you are on the cusp of making a transition away from the private practice of law, but fall within the boundaries of mandatory eCourt, you may want to delegate this task – or find an eFiling lawyer buddy.  Before you do, consider the following:

Is it ethically permissible to delegate eFiling?

Short answer: Yes, qualified.  (Read the remainder of this post.)

Whether you use an eFiling lawyer buddy (contract lawyer who tends to the eFiling responsibilities of the case) or a non-lawyer staff person, you have the right to give others access to your eFiling account.

On November 19, 2014, I co-presented the OSB-PLF CLE, Oregon eCourt Update, with Daniel Parr from the Oregon Judicial Department (OJD).  At that CLE, the following questions were posed:

Q: Should an assistant be the Administrator and then the Attorney be under that same registration? Or should a legal assistant have a separate account?

A: In general this decision is up to you. Your group should register as a firm or as a unit on the system, even if you are a solo practitioner. You can choose who to assign as a firm administrator, and this can be multiple individuals. Some firms have chosen to have staff log into attorney accounts, and other firms have chosen to have the staff set up accounts directly.

Q: Are there any ethical issues with having non-attorney staff handle filings?

A: Staff are permitted to assist with this process, and non-attorney staff are already eFiling on behalf of attorneys. Obviously it is up to the attorney to review and supervise any work done by non-attorneys, and the attorney is responsible for the result.

While we did not explicitly receive a question about using a contract lawyer to handle eFilings, the result is the same – contract lawyers (eFiling lawyer buddies) are permitted to eFile on behalf of the attorney of record.  As attorney of record, it is up to you to supervise your eFiling lawyer buddy, and you are responsible for the result.  There are some other considerations, discussed below.

Is it possible to avoid eFiling entirely?

Short answer:  Yes, upon “good cause” shown, with the court’s permission.  Any lawyer can apply for a waiver of the eFiling requirement.  The waiver may apply to an existing (singular) case (UTCR 21.140(3)(a)(ii)) or all cases in a given judicial district for a specific period of time. (UTCR 21.140(3)(a)(i)).  Lawyers seek a waiver for an existing case by filing a motion; for all cases in a specific judicial district by filing a petition.

If the court grants a petition waiving the eFiling requirement in a specific judicial district, “the person obtaining the waiver must file a copy of the court’s order in each case subject to the waiver; and include the words “Exempt from eFiling per Waiver Granted [DATE]” in the caption of all documents conventionally filed during the duration of the waiver.” (UTCR 21.140(3)(d) and (e)).

Using an eFiling lawyer buddy (contract lawyer)

If you decide to use a contract lawyer to eFile your cases, follow these guidelines:

  • Put it in writing.  As with all contract lawyering arrangements, document in writing the scope of the agreement, method of compensation, and other details.  For assistance with establishing contract lawyering relationships, see the checklist and documents available from the Professional Liability Fund (PLF).  On the PLF website, select Practice Management > Forms > Contract Lawyering.
  • Assess PLF coverage implications.  If the eFiling lawyer buddy is claiming an exemption from PLF coverage, he or she cannot operate independently and “take over” eFiling responsibility.  Contract lawyers who are exempt from coverage must function under PLF guidelines.  (For details, visit the PLF website.  Select Assessments & Exemptions > Exemptions, then “Law Clerk/Supervised Attorney Not Engaged in the Private Practice of Law.”)
    Your eFiling lawyer buddy is likely to be safe if she restricts her role to that of an assistant or secretary: uploading documents at the attorney of record’s direction, following the attorney of record’s instructions in selecting a filing code, etc.  The more independent your eFiling lawyer buddy becomes, the more likely she could be viewed as acting beyond the scope of the PLF contract lawyering exemption (if in effect).  The simple workaround: your eFiling lawyer buddy (aka contract lawyer) can obtain PLF coverage for more freedom in executing her duties.
  • Understand the acceptance/rejection process. As you define the scope of the eFiling lawyer buddy’s responsibilities, consider who will be responsible for processing and responding to acceptance and rejection notices issued by Tylerhost.net.  (Oregon’s eCourt vendor.)  For example, if the attorney of record eFiles a complaint on the day the statute runs and her filing is rejected, who will refile and seek relation-back?
    It stands to reason that each time an eFiling lawyer buddy files a document for the attorney of record, she needs to be engaged and available to assist with the filing until an acceptance or rejection notice is issued. This can take up to a week.  Specific terms should be added to the written contract lawyering agreement that address the eFiling lawyer buddy’s responsibility in rejection situations.  (Note: the attorney of record can instruct her eFiling lawyer buddy to add himself as a contact in order to receive acceptance/rejection notices generated by Tylerhost.net.)
  • Understand the court notice process.  Some lawyers who are tempted to hire an eFiling lawyer buddy might be operating under the misapprehension that they can completely avoid all associated technology.  However, court notices from the Oregon Judicial Department are sent only to the “filer,” in this case, the attorney of record.  The attorney of record is responsible for reviewing and acting upon court email on a timely basis.
  • Limit account access.  By necessity, an eFiling lawyer buddy will need access to the attorney of record’s eFiling account (Odyssey) operated by Tylerhost/Tyler Technologies. But this access can (and should be) limited in writing.  The eFiling lawyer buddy should only use the attorney of record’s eFiling account as needed, and at the express direction of the attorney of record.
  • Limit credit card access.  Ideally, the attorney of record will create the eFiling (Odyssey) account and enter the credit card information needed for payment of filing fees.  If the attorney of record needs assistance, she can call the Tyler Technologies support number and/or use the “GoToAssist” feature, allowing Tyler Technologies to take control of her computer to establish the account. This limits the eFiling lawyer buddy’s access to the attorney of record’s credit card account information.  Once the credit card information is entered, the eFiling lawyer buddy simply selects the payment account to pay filing fees.  If the eFiling account is configured properly, the eFiling lawyer buddy will not be able to see the credit card information.  The attorney of record should be the “administrator.”  The eFiling lawyer buddy should be a “user.”  Support staff at Tyler Technologies can help attorneys of record set up accounts using these distinctions.
    To further protect herself, the attorney of record should dedicate a specific credit card to use in paying eFiling fees.  By establishing a credit card solely for this purpose, it will be very easy to spot whether there is any inappropriate activity on the account.  The only charges that should ever appear on attorney of record’s billing statement are filing fees payable to OJD.
  • Provide proper supervision.  Regardless of how duties are divided, the real responsibility here still falls on the attorney of record.  This scenario presumes that the eFiling lawyer buddy’s role is to act only as a technical specialist.  The attorney of record must be sure at all times that eFiling lawyer buddy is doing his job.  The eFiling lawyer buddy is not responsible for the content or accuracy of documents filed; nor is it eFiling lawyer buddy’s responsibility to monitor filing deadlines.
  • Be aware of ethics traps in determining compensation. The attorney of record can cover the cost of using the eFiling lawyer buddy out of his own pocket as a cost of doing business.  If the attorney of record intends to bill clients for eFiling lawyer buddy’s services, the clients must consent.  The attorney of record should update his client fee agreements accordingly.  (Beware the limitations of modifying a fee agreement midstream – see OSB Formal Opinion 2005-97.)
    Alternatively, the attorney of record could also barter services in exchange, but should check in with OSB General Counsel about the ethics of such an arrangement.
    If the attorney of record plans to split her fees with the eFiling lawyer buddy, she must comply with the Oregon RPCs requiring disclosure and consent of the fee split to the client.

[All Rights Reserved – 2015 – Beverly Michaelis]

The Importance of Keeping Complete Client files

Do you keep a complete copy of your client files?  If not, does your reasoning fall into one of the following categories:

 

Let’s consider these arguments individually.

Rationale: I don’t want to store the paper

Agreed!  I don’t blame you one bit.  Talk about inconvenient!

  • You could keep files at home, but no one wants to do that and some of us don’t have the space.
  • You could keep files in your office, but it can look like a clutter bomb went off.
  • This leaves the expensive option: keeping files off-site.

Solution: Scan your closed files

The easiest solution is to stop adding to the problem.  Resolve to scan your closed files starting this year.  Most practitioners will need a scanner for Oregon eCourt.  Put it to work as a file retention tool.

Rationale: Scanning is too time consuming

If your paper files aren’t “scanner” friendly, digitizing them at closing time can be tedious and time-consuming.

Solution: Make your life easier and scan as you go

Scanning paper as you receive it means all file materials are electronic from the start and the work is done automatically over the life of the file.  In fact, if you “scan as you go,” there is no reason not to simply be paperless.

After scanning, paper can be:

  1. Shredded
  2. Given to the client
  3. Kept for a designated amount of time in a general chron file
  4. Kept for a designated amount of time in simplified client file (e.g., dropped into an expanding file folder)

Exceptions may apply to certain types of originals.  See the PLF File Retention Guidelines, available on the PLF website.

Rationale: The court has all my pleadings

This is a specific example of the argument that if someone else has a copy of the documents stored in my file, I don’t need to retain my set.

Solution: Keep it real

No one else possesses your exact client file, as you gathered it, for the purpose you gathered it.

When you decide that it isn’t necessary to keep copies of the documents you filed in court, the medical records used to prove your client’s damages, or some other part of your file on the grounds that “someone else has a copy,” you are taking a huge risk.

Many a lawyer has regretted the decision not to keep records because “they were available elsewhere.”  For example, the lawyer who said he withdrew from a case long before a judgment was entered against his former client.  The lawyer claimed he withdrew, but had no documentation in his file.  The court’s Register of Actions showed receipt of a letter from the lawyer seeking to withdraw, but when a PDF of the court file was obtained, there was no letter.  Maybe the letter never made it into the paper file.  Or perhaps it was missed when the file was scanned.

Regardless, the moral of the story is pretty apparent: anyone (including a court clerk) can misplace, misfile, or lose a document.  Never rely on another person or entity to keep your records.  PLF claim files are replete with similar examples.

In the event of a legal malpractice claim, it may be crucial to prove what you did nor did not have in your file.  And while it may be possible to obtain duplicate records, doing so does not establish they were previously in your possession.

Additionally, defending the practice of discarding part of your file can be quite uncomfortable at deposition or in front of a jury.  Jurors hold lawyers to a high standard and often naturally have sympathy for the plaintiff bringing a claim.  If your testimony shows that you shredded part of your file, jurors may draw the wrong conclusion about your motives.  Play it safe and keep your complete file.

All Rights Reserved [2015] Beverly Michaelis

 

Practice Alerts for Oregon Lawyers

Professional Liability Fund Practice Alerts are a quick, easy way for Oregon lawyers to stay informed about developing legal news and practice management announcements.

With an RSS feed you can subscribe to alerts and receive new posts automatically in your browser or e-mail inbox  without the need to login or monitor the PLF website.  Examples of recent post topics include:

  • Are you eCourt Ready?
  • Temporary eFiling Restrictions Lifted
  • UTCR 21.140 Amended Out-of-Cycle
  • Office Productivity in the Cloud: Is Office 365 Right for You?
  • eCourt Service Status – Temporary eFiling Restrictions
  • eCourt Mandatory effective December 1, 2014

You can also follow the Professional Liability Fund on social media, including:

Social media accounts are used to share news, events, CLE announcements, job opportunities, discounts, and useful practice tips.

Stay in touch!

[All Rights Reserved – 2015 – Beverly Michaelis]

Submitting Your First eCourt Filing

Mandatory eCourt begins today for the eleven circuit courts that currently have the Oregon eCourt system.  In last week’s post, I described 10 steps to get ready for eFiling. Today I want to address how to manage the stress and anxiety of this transition.

Give Yourself Extra Time

I truly believe that once practitioners gain experience with eFiling, the transition will be embraced.  I appreciate that the road to gaining experience brings anxiety, especially since there is no way to “practice” with the Odyssey eFile & Serve system.

Knowing that the first filing or two might be a little nerve-wracking, please give yourself extra time.  You will become familiar with the process, but building familiarity and confidence takes time.  Don’t create extra pressure for yourself by waiting until the deadline date to file a document.  If your filing is rejected, you will need to seek relation back to cure the missed deadline.

If at all possible, file well in advance of the deadline.  If your filing is rejected, you will have time to breathe, fix the problem, and refile.

File During Business Hours When Support is Available

The Odyssey eFile & Serve system is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  While it may be tempting to complete a filing at 10:00 p.m. Friday night, technical support staff are not available to assist you if something goes awry.

File during regular business hours, Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central Time when Tyler Technologies support staff can assist you.

Tyler Technologies support staff can walk you through:

  • Initiating a new filing
  • Filing into an existing case
  • eServing parties in a case

Tech support can also use “GoToAssist” to take control of your computer and help you complete an eFiling. Keep the support number handy: 1.800.297.5377 and don’t hesitate to use it.

Reach Out to Experienced Colleagues

If you know a colleague who has used the Odyssey eFile & Serve system system, ask for pointers.  There are practitioners in Yamhill, Crook, Jefferson, and a handful of other counties who have lived with eCourt for 18 months.  If you don’t know of someone personally who has used the system, posting to a listserv or contacting a Resource Lawyer through the Oregon State Bar Lawyer-to-Lawyer program may be an option.  (Note: eCourt is not a specific resource category in the Lawyer-to-Lawyer program, but Litigation is.)

[All Rights Reserved – 2014 – Beverly Michaelis]

 

The Nontraditional Law Practice

A nontraditional law practice can be anything a lawyer wants it to be:

  • Hybrid or alternative fee arrangements;
  • Unbundling;
  • Virtual law practice;
  • Home-based practice;
  • All the above; or
  • Something else entirely

Hybrid or Alternative Fee Agreements (AFAs)

As more clients push back against the hourly rate model, lawyers are looking for unconventional ways to price legal services.  One of the most popular?  The hybrid or alternative fee agreement (AFA).

Before you enthusiastically embrace this option, read this post and make sure your AFA satisfies the 5 “C’s” test:

  • Clarity
  • Completeness
  • Compliant
  • Common sense
  • Can’t be excessive

Hybrid or alternative fee agreements are often combined with other elements of a nontraditional practice.  Used correctly, they can be a huge asset.

Unbundling: Have it Your Way

With unbundling, clients pick and choose discrete services from a menu of available choices:

Providing limited legal services is not a new concept. Transactional lawyers have long served in the role of document reviewer or preparer. So how is unbundling different? It takes the idea one step further by employing a team approach in which the lawyer and client decide who will do what based on the legal services required by the client’s case. The client takes a much more active role in the matter and often assumes responsibility for pro se court filings and appearances.

Keep in mind that unbundling has its risks: Unbundling in the 21st Century: How to Reduce Malpractice Exposure While Meeting Client Needs and its ethical limitations.  See Unbundling Legal Services: Limiting the Scope of Representation and The Ethics of Unbundling:  How to Avoid the Land Mines of “Discrete Task Representation.”

Virtual Law Practice or Home Practice?

A virtual law practice or virtual law office (VLO) is a term of art referring to online delivery of legal services through a secure client portal.  If you are interested in creating a VLO, Stephanie Kimbro’s book Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online is a must.  [Available on the ABA Web store here. If you are not an ABA member, save money at checkout by using the Professional Liability Fund’s (PLF’s) discount code OSBPLF.]  Also see this post about click wrap or click through fee agreements.

VLOs aside, most lawyers who express an interest in practicing virtually mean they want to work from home – due to economic necessity, personal choice, or both.  In next week’s post, I’ll discuss the nine steps to establishing a successful home-based practice.

[All Rights Reserved 2014 Beverly Michaelis]

 

I Say Of Counsel You Say…

Of Counsel relationships remain a strong area of interest for lawyers who are drawn to the idea of creating a professional affiliation. In that quest, there are many misunderstandings about what an of counsel relationship is:

 

To better understand of counsel relationships, start here.  Also see this excellent post from Solo Practice University.

If you decide to pursue an of counsel relationship, enter into a written agreement to avoid misunderstandings.  See the American Bar Association publication, The Of Counsel Agreement, 4th EditionIf you are an Oregon lawyer, save money at checkout by using our ABA Books for Bars discount code, OSBPLF.

Of counsel arrangements may also implicate your professional liability coverage.  If you are an Oregon practitioner, please contact our coverage experts at 503.639.6911 or 800.452.1639 – particularly if you carry excess professional coverage liability with the PLF.

If you are forming an of counsel relationship and have any uncertainty whatsoever about how to craft a proper agreement, consult with outside counsel. Lastly, Don’t confuse being of counsel with being an independent contractor. See Mission Impossible? Working as an Independent Contractor in Oregon and this post.  [Pertaining to contract lawyers, but providing a good review of the issues surrounding independent contractor status.]

All Rights Reserved [2014] Beverly Michaelis

Cyber Security and Data Breach Response

lock“Cyber threat is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.”  Barack Obama, President of the United States

The Identity Theft Resource Center has documented over 500 data breaches in 2014 through early September.  This represents a 26.2% increase over the same time period last year. The news isn’t any better for the legal profession.

The latest ABA Legal Technology Survey Report notes that “Nearly half of law firms were infected with viruses, spyware or malware last year.”  Fourteen percent of law firms “experienced a security breach last year in the form of a lost or stolen computer or smartphone, a hacker, a break-in or a website exploit.”

Where to Start

With such staggering numbers, it is easy to become overwhelmed.  If you are concerned about cyber security but don’t know where to start, begin here at the ABA Web site. If you are a prolific user of mobile devices, be sure to check out the ABA’s suggestions for Security on the Go.  To understand the state of security in US law firms, read this post by Bob Ambrogi.

Make Encryption Your Best Friend

Encryption is a powerful way to protect sensitive data belonging to you and your clients. The ABA post Playing it Safe provides a good overview.  Since TrueCyrpt is no longer available, check out the following reviews of encryption software: LIfehacker, GFI, PC World, and Gizmo.

You’ve Heard it Before: Use Strong Passwords

It seems we are reminding lawyers every other day about the importance of using strong passwords unique to each account or Web site.  See these recent posts on the ABA Law Technology Today blog:

Firewalls, Anti-Spam, Anti-Virus, Malware Protection

The best protection is comprehensive.  This excerpt from The 2014 Solo and Small Firm Technology Guide provides guidance.  Don’t be afraid to hire an IT expert to help.

Purchase Cyber Liability and Data Breach Coverage

The Professional Liability Fund (PLF) Excess Claims Made Plan automatically includes a cyber liability and data breach response endorsement with these features:

  • Forensic and legal assistance to determine compliance with applicable law
  • Notifications to individuals as required by law
  • 12 months credit monitoring to each notified client
  • Loss mitigation resources for law firms

If you aren’t eligible or don’t wish to purchase excess coverage through the PLF, contact a commercial carrier.

Protect Yourself Against Scams

The security measures outlined above are a good start toward protecting your firm and your clients from scams.  For more complete protection, get educated.  Order the free PLF CLE: “Protecting Your Firm and Your Client from Scams, Fraud, and Financial Loss,” and talk to your bank about fraud protection services.

[All Rights Reserved – 2014 – Beverly Michaelis]

 

 

Leaving Your Firm

Parting isn’t always such sweet sorrow.  In fact, it can be downright contentious.

If you are contemplating leaving your firm, do your research. Meeting your ethical obligations fulfills only part of your responsibilities.

IF YOU ARE A PARTNER

Conduct your partnership withdrawal in a manner that honors the contractual and fiduciary responsibilities owed to your fellow partners.  Contractual duties are controlled by your written partnership agreement.  Fiduciary duties are described in case law and codified by statute in Oregon’s Revised Partnership Act.

IF YOU ARE NOT A PARTNER

Review your employment contract, employment letter, office policies, office procedures, or any other applicable terms that may control the process for terminating your relationship with your current firm or your obligations upon departure.

ARE ISSUES LIKELY TO ARISE?

Consult outside counsel experienced in the areas of lawyer mobility, partnerships, fiduciary duties, lawyer separation, and law firm dissolution.

PUT CLIENTS ABOVE ALL ELSE

If you are making a lateral move to another firm or setting up your own practice, remember that the client’s freedom of choice in selection of counsel is paramount.  Always put the interests of your clients first.  Keep the transition as amicable, professional, and stress-free as possible.  Contentious withdrawals alienate clients and damage relationships.

GIVE NOTICE TO YOUR FIRM BEFORE YOU CONTACT CLIENTS

Inform the firm of your decision to leave before contacting any clients.  Failing to give adequate and timely notice to your firm or partners before you contact clients is a violation of the duty of loyalty owed by a lawyer to his or her firm based on their contractual or agency relationship.  It may also constitute conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation in violation of Oregon RPC 8.4(a)(3).

RESOURCES

The Professional Liability Fund has extensive resources for Oregon lawyers who are departing a firm, withdrawing from a partnership, or dissolving a firm.  Visit our Web site for more information.

All rights reserved [2014] Beverly Michaelis.

 

 

Malpractice Claim Trends in Oregon [Infographic]

The 2013 Professional Liability Fund Annual Report is now available for Oregon lawyers on the PLF Web site.  The report reveals the following legal malpractice claim trends and data:

Number of claimsAverage Cost Per ClaimFrequency of Claims by Area of LawCost of Claims by Area of Law