What to Do When You Can’t Find Your Client — NWSidebar

An excellent article from our friends in Washington:

What if you can’t contact your client and a deadline is near? Should you act to protect them, even if they can’t be reached? WSBA attorney Sandra Schilling explains the rules you need to know.

via What to Do When You Can’t Find Your Client — NWSidebar

My Desk, My Enemy

Desks are the pedestals of our productivity. How we organize the stuff on them has a big effect on how well or if we get things done in a timely fashion. But just as important as these practical concerns is the impact it has on our mental health.

While researching content for a presentation, I came across this older post: My Desk, My Enemy: 6 Helpful Ways to Get Organized.  Written by Dan Lukasik and published at Lawyers with Depression, it contains helpful information that remains relevant.

Organizational Style

Dan begins by describing the four organizational styles identified by Kelly Lynn Anders in her book, The Organized Lawyer:

Stackers organize by topic in stacks. They are visual and tactile and like to give the appearance of order. The busier these people are, the more stacks they have.

Spreaders are visual like stackers, but must be able to see everything they’re working on.

Free Spirits keep very few personal belongings around the work area. They like new ideas and keep reports, books, articles and magazines near.

Pack Rats have emotional ties to things. They like the feeling of fullness around them and like to tell stories about what’s in the office.

These categories are insightful, and describe a fair number of people I’ve worked with. But they fail to recognize what happens when a lawyer is depressed, depleted of energy, and has no motivation to get organized.  Dan calls this “the depressed desk:”

When a lawyer has depression, motivation and organization are BIG problems. A lack of energy blunts motivation. We already know that it’s a good idea to keep our desk together, but there simply isn’t much neurochemical juice to get it done….

We must outfox depression. It would have us do nothing. So we must do something. 

Dan’s Six Simple Solutions [Abbreviated]

  1. Get rid of all those pens. Only keep three or four.
  2. Take home any books that you don’t use on a regular basis. [I would add: do the same with magazines and legal periodicals. Create a “free spirit” space at home if this is your organizational style.]
  3. Hide cords – use twist-ties or coil your cords up.
  4. Only keep on your desk what you need for that day. Then section off your desk and workspace so that everything has a specific space.
  5. Have a dump day.  Pull everything out, put it in a big pile, sort, and toss.
  6. Schedule a date and time to clean your desk.

Read Dan’s original “six simple solutions” here.

Parting Thoughts

It’s easy to be skeptical of simple solutions.  How could tossing excess pens or hiding cords possibly help?  What difference does it make to clean off my desk?  

Trust me, it helps.

  • Eliminating clutter reduces stress and anxiety.
  • Organizing and prioritizing gives you back a sense of control.
  • Compartmentalizing allows you to plan for what you need to do and when.
  • Freeing up space allows you to breathe, think, and work.

You owe yourself, and you deserve, a pleasant work environment.

If you are a lawyer with depression, consider following Dan’s blog and connect with one of the confidential attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

ABA Blueprint: What Is it and Why Should I Care?

ABA Blueprint.combp is a new tool designed to help solo and small firm lawyers find what
they need to run their firm.  Any lawyer may browse the website for resources and information.  Technology, marketing, insurance, retirement, and practice management services are available to ABA members only.  Here’s an overview:

Services for ABA Members at Blueprint.com

  • Discounts on products and services
  • Access to free practice management consultants
  • Firm Builder (see below)
  • Ability to save solutions to your Blueprint account so you don‘t lose your research

If this sounds good to you, check out ABA membership here.  Dues are pro-rated based on your date of original bar admission.  Membership is free for 2016 and 2017 admittees.

Resources Non-ABA Members Can Access at Blueprint.com

Informative BLOG Posts

At ABA Blueprint, click the logo (upper left) to visit the Home page.  Scroll to the bottom to find a feed of the latest posts from the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center blog. Examples include using email newsletters, trends in legal technology, website costsgetting the most out of online forms, and state data breach notification laws.

Universal Solutions

Anyone can visit the Universal Solutions page to look at the curated list of products for starting a firm, growing a firm, getting paid, building a team, mastering eDiscovery, and insuring your family and future.  Keep in mind the listed discounts are for ABA members only.  The ABA expects to add more products in the future.  Here are the highlights:

Universal Solution Category Discount Offered
to ABA Members
Projected
Annual Savings
Start a Firm Now Office 365

Clio

$222.00-$363.84
Help Me Get Paid Clio

LawPay

QuickBooks Online

$361.60-$595.00
Help Me Grow Lexicata

MailChimp

LexBlog

$169.90-$578.80
Help Me Build a Team Ruby Receptionists

Fancy Hands

$833.28-$1440.88
Help Me With eDiscovery eDiscovery Assistant

PageVault

 

$714.00-$1394.00
Help Me Insure My Future ABA Insurance

ABA Retirement Program

No data available

What is Firm Builder?

Firm Builder is available to ABA members only. Online modules provide help for technology basics, virtual assistance, and marketing.  This is also the place where ABA members can connect to a practice management consultant.  Here’s how the modules work:

  1. Select a Firm Builder topic (technology, virtual assistance or marketing).
  2. Answer a series of questions.  (Don’t worry, there are plenty of options for “I don’t know, or I’ve done some research, but tell me more.)
  3. Once you’ve answered all the questions, Firm Builder proposes a set of solutions, i.e., products that fit your needs.  The product list is curated from the Universal Solutions page of ABA Blueprint.

Long story short

Firm Builder is a fancy tool that ends up replicating the information already available under Universal Solutions.  While this is redundant, don’t let it dissuade you from using the tool as it may help you focus more specifically on the products that fit your needs. In addition, Firm Builder gives you the option of contacting a live practice management consultant.  Thirty minute consultations are available at no charge via phone or email, and users are promised a 24-hour turnaround time. Live chat is available for quick questions from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time, presumably 7 days a week as no limitation is noted on the website.

Who are these consultants?  For now, most or all of them will come from CuroLegal, a private consulting firm working with the ABA.  In the future, the expectation is that practice management advisors – like those associated with your bar or liability coverage provider – will sign on as ABA Blueprint consultants.

Endorsements and Ethics

Does the ABA endorse the products listed on their site?

No, as a matter of ABA policy.  Products featured on the site were selected based on “suitability for solo/small firm practitioners, the stability of the vendor, the availability of integrations, and the standing of the product in the market.”

Do the products on the ABA site meet ethical requirements for all states?

The ABA does not certify the ethical suitability of a given product or service.  The website recommends consulting your local ethics body for advice or guidance. Oregon lawyers can speak to private ethics counsel or contact the Oregon State Bar General Counsel’s office.

Speaking of Oregon Lawyers

If you need help, please take advantage of the abundance of resources available to you through the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund, including access to free and confidential practice management advisors.  You are also welcome to call or email me. I dedicated the last 20+ years of my professional career to helping Oregon lawyers. Thirty minute emails and calls are always free.  Turnaround time is next business day.

On the CLE front, it’s not too late to sign up for Unclaimed Client Funds this Wednesday. Or start the new year off right with “Fee Agreements – Ethical Dos and Don’ts.”  This live, online webinar is scheduled for January 18, 2017. Registration is open now.

All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis

The Perils of Unsigned Fee Agreements and Engagement Letters

Does this scenario sound familiar?

On November 1 you meet with Jane Client.  You have a good feeling about Jane and her case.  She is definitely someone you want to represent.  After the meeting, you send Jane a standard fee agreement/engagement letter.  You tell Jane that you will need documents and additional information to proceed.  You also explain that Jane must establish a retainer of $2500 before you begin work on her case.  On November 3, Jane sends you an email with the required documents.  Four days later, she provides the additional information you requested.  On November 8 you and Jane speak over the phone. On November 10 Jane sends you a check for $2500.

Clients Like Jane are Tempting…

Jane is a very appealing client.  You have good rapport and confidence in her case. She is cooperative, responsive, and paid your retainer.  So what’s not to like?  If you proceed to represent Jane (or let’s be honest: if you continue representing Jane), you do so under substantial risk.  How can that be?  Let’s explore some of the issues that come to mind:

The Perils of Unsigned Fee Agreements and Engagement Letters

  • No enforceable written contract.  I wouldn’t want to be without one.  I’m not saying all hope is lost collection-wise, but you certainly have a far tougher row to hoe without the client’s signature on a written agreement.  Fee agreements should always be in writing, countersigned by the client, regardless of the practice area.
  • No proof of scope of representation.  This could lead to several problems: demands by the client that you provide additional, unintended services; liability exposure for unanticipated (but arguably related) services; or inability to withdraw as attorney of record before an agency or tribunal.
  • Voidable fees in contingent cases.  ORS 20.340(1)(a) provides that all contingent fee agreements “shall be written in plain and simple language reasonably believed to be understandable by the plaintiff.”  In addition, a model explanation of the contingent fee agreement is required.  ORS 20.340(1)(b).  “Any contingent fee agreement entered into on or after September 26, 1987, that does not comply with the requirements of subsection (1) of this section is voidable. [Formerly 9.400]”
  • Ethics complaints related to flat or fixed fees paid in advance.  Oregon RPC 1.15 and 1.5, together with Oregon Formal Opinion 2005-151, describe a specific set of conditions for “earned upon receipt fees,” the most basic of which is that such arrangements must be in writing.  No exceptions.

Fixing the Problem

Since Jane is otherwise an ideal client it should be easy to pick the phone and have a conversation about the necessity of signing and returning your fee agreement and engagement letter. It is possible she simply overlooked your paperwork.  You may also learn that your fee agreement or engagement letter is too long or too complicated.

  1. If you are asking the client to sign an “earned upon receipt” fee agreement after the fact, consult with private ethics counsel or contact OSB General Counsel before proceeding: “Without a clear written agreement between a lawyer and a client that fees paid in advance are earned on receipt, such funds must be considered client property and are, therefore, afforded the protections imposed by Oregon RPC 1.15-1. In re Biggs, 318 Or at 293 (discussing former DR 9-101). If there is a written agreement with the client that complies with the requirements of Oregon RPC 1.5(c)(3), the funds belong to the lawyer and may not be put in the lawyer’s client trust account. If no such agreement exists, the funds must be placed into the trust account and can only be withdrawn as earned. See, e.g., In re Hedges, 313 Or at 623–24; OSB Formal Ethics Op No 2005-149.” OSB Formal Opinion 2005-151.
  2. Going forward, streamline your engagement/fee agreement procedure.
    1. Give the client a heads-up about the importance of signing and returning your agreement/engagement letter during the client meeting.  Let the client know to expect the letter, what it will say, and why it must be signed before you can proceed.  Encourage clients to call with any questions or concerns.
    2. Consider presenting the fee agreement or engagement letter to the client as part of the client meeting [not my personal favorite, but it is an option] – or – experiment with eSigning.  Services like DocuSign are simple, easy, and secure.  Another option?  A click-wrap agreement.
    3. If you use surface mail, consider enclosing a stamped, self-addressed return envelope).  Be sure to include an extra copy of the agreement for the client’s records.
    4. Set a date to follow-up with the client about returning your agreement and enter the follow-up date in your calendaring system.  If the agreement is not returned by the date specified, contact the client.
    5. Solicit client feedback about other changes you can make to improve return of signed fee agreements and engagement letters.

Make it Easier for You and the Client

Clients want agreements that are short, simple, and understandable.  This presents a challenge because we are tempted to cover every contingency in great detail. Odds are your fee agreement has room for improvement when it comes to use of Plain English, and room to spare when it comes to verbosity.

Consider this option:  Instead of devoting a page of your fee agreement to the subject of billing, enclose a separate one page bullet list of “Billing Practices” describing when/where/how you bill. While technically a “cheat” (you just added another page), it will shorten the actual agreement while giving the client the information they need in a more understandable format.

Or if you prefer not to add another physical page, send the client a link to the billing practices section of your website.  (Which can be a stand-alone page not visible in your navigation menu.)

This concept – enclosing a bullet list or providing a link to content on your website – can be applied to other issues covered in a typical fee agreement/engagement letter. Using this approach should not jeopardize the viability of your contract or collection of accounts if you use language that incorporates the referenced practices as part of your agreement.  Be sure to use effective dates on any enclosures or web pages and retain links to archived firm policies or procedures. If you choose to transition content in this manner, do you own research on enforceability/viability.

Final Thoughts: Learn More!

Learn more about fee agreements at the upcoming CLE, “Fee Agreements – Ethical Dos and Don’ts,” on January 18, 2017.  Start the new year off right!

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]