Precautions for Paperless Practitioners

Did you happen to notice the new ethics opinion issued in September 2016?  You aren’t alone, but don’t worry.  Let’s get caught up.

ethics-photo

OSB Formal Opinion 2016-191 addresses a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities in keeping paperless client files and disposing of client property.

Everything Old is New Again

Nigh on eight years ago, I gave some advice on this subject:

  • Inform clients of your digital storage practices.  Explain how you will provide documents to current clients in the regular course of business and in the event a former client requests a complete copy of his or her file.
  • Update your fee agreement and engagement letters to reflect your file policies and procedures.
  • Be prepared to provide clients with a copy of their digital file in a format they can access.  [This may mean physically printing the file.]
  • Establish a retention policy for your digital files.
  • Use security measures to protect client records.
  • Take steps to ensure that documents stored electronically cannot be inadvertently modified or destroyed.
  • Backup, backup, backup!
  • Review the Professional Liability Fund (PLF) practice aid, Checklist for Imaging Client Files and Disposing of Original Documents. This checklist has since been renamed Checklist for Scanning Client Files.  It points out that certain papers should not be discarded after scanning. Examples include any document whose authenticity could be disputed, those with particular legal importance, or documents that only have value or enforceability as a piece of paper.  It also admonishes that original client property cannot be destroyed without consent.

See Beverly Michaelis, “Is It Time to Go Paper-Less?” PLF In Brief (February 2009), available on the PLF website.

What Does the Oregon State Bar Say?

OSB Formal Opinion 2016-191 reinforces my earlier advice:

First, there is no ethical prohibition against maintaining the “client file” solely in electronic or paperless form. But this doesn’t mean your ethical duties are thrown out the window.

Lawyers must safeguard client property, maintain confidentiality of information, and ensure availability of electronic file documents. This means:

  • Taking reasonable steps to ensure the security of electronic-only files.
  • Protecting against destruction of original client documents without the client’s express consent.
  • Retaining records for appropriate time periods, including following the completion of the matter or termination of representation.
  • Considering whether an electronic-only file might present a hardship for clients who need to access and work with the documents in paper form.

Lawyers must also communicate with the client regarding the terms of the representation and relevant developments affecting the representation:

  • The opinion suggests entering into reasonable agreements regarding how you will maintain client files during and after the conclusion of a matter. [Yes, please!]
  • You should also confirm that converting your closed paper file to electronic-only documents does not violate the terms of your retention agreement with the client.

If you use cloud-based solutions for storage of electronic-only files, re-read OSB Formal Opinion 2011-188 or see this post.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017.

It feels good to be right.  Chalk one up for me 🙂

 

 

 

The Best Legal Blog Posts of 2016

2016-word-cloudIf you’ve followed my blog for a year or more, you know I generally publish a “Year in Review” post.  This December I thought I’d take a slightly different approach. Instead of a comprehensive list, I’m filtering it down to my personal favorites. And while it may be controversial, I’m calling this compilation The Best Legal Blog Posts of 2016.  There is plenty of good stuff out there, but this is the best that has appeared here.  Mostly my content, but also sourced from other great writers.

Client Relations

eCourt and court procedures

Finances

Marketing

Security

Staffing

Technology

Time Management

All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis

Client and Case Screening: Lessons Learned

One of the most important skills lawyers must hone is the ability to size up clients and cases.  If you’ve allowed disagreeable clients or “dog” files to creep into your practice, you know exactly what I mean.

Evaluate potential new clients based on the seven keys to successful client screening:

Goals

Are the client’s goals reasonable under the circumstances?  Does a proper legal remedy exist?  If you inform the client that the result she is seeking isn’t possible, how does the client respond to this news?

Motives

What drives the client?  Does he have a “scorched earth,” take no prisoners, sue at all costs mentality?  A desire to “get back” at the other party?  This person may be difficult to manage, if not to please, and unwilling to compromise.

Past Legal History

What is the client’s history with the law, particularly the court system?  Has the client ever filed a lawsuit?  Been sued?  Had a criminal case?  A simple search using the “party name” field in OJCIN will yield results, but these are good questions to ask the client directly.  For one, it may be crucial to know if your client has been involved in a similar or related matter in the past.  Prior testimony could be relevant (or discovered). For screening purposes, the goal is to rule out red flags.  If you discover the client has a record of bringing six unsuccessful civil suits in the last ten years, this may give you pause.

Willingness and Ability to Pay

The client who lacks the funds to pay you up front is very unlikely to come up with the money later.  The client who complains about your fee and pays grudgingly is a fee dispute waiting to happen.  ‘Nuff said.

Lawyer Shopping

This is the most critical screening element in my opinion.  How many lawyers has the client spoken to and why?  Do you get the sense the client is trying to conflict out the other party?  (See Motives, above.)  Has more than one lawyer declined to represent the client?  Did the client fire her former lawyer?  Is the client currently represented, but unhappy?

Getting a second opinion is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, if there is a long line of lawyers behind you move on to the next prospect.

Nonverbal Cues

Sometimes clients tell us what we want to hear.  All the words are right, but the client’s tone is off or he refuses to make eye contact.  When nonverbal cues don’t align with the client’s verbal message, something is wrong.  Either probe the inconsistency or decline representation.

Attitude

The ideal client should have a neutral or positive attitude toward the law and the profession.  A client who has a chip on her shoulder will be difficult to turn around.  Your job is to learn more and weigh for yourself whether this person is someone you want to represent.  You may discover the client’s feelings are justifiable. Or it could be the client is playing the “blame game.”  If so, this is one queue you don’t want to be in.

More to Learn

Learning the seven keys to successful client screening is only part of the battle.  If you want to hone your client and case screening skills, but missed the Client and Case Screening CLE last Wednesday, contact me for information on how to download the written materials.  In addition to the 7 Keys to Successful Client Screening, this CLE also addressed:

  • Integrating screening into client intake
  • Probing clients with 5 must-ask questions
  • Learning how to adjust when you take a case beyond your areas of expertise
  • Debunking the top 10 excuses for taking a bad case
  • Building discipline into the case selection process
  • Declining the poorly-matched client
  • Preparing effective nonengagement and disengagement letters
  • Embracing the lawyer’s Bill of Rights

I anticipate offering this program again in 2017.

All Rights Reserved [2016] Beverly Michaelis