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

The Continuum of Client Communication

We communicate with clients along a continuum – using emails, texts, letters, phone calls, video conferences, and in-person meetings.  When selecting a communication medium, what drives your choice?

 

When Your Convenience Determines How You Communicate

Choosing a communication medium that is most convenient for you is understandable. Odds are you’re busy, maybe overwhelmed.  You have information to convey and want to pass it along to the client quickly and easily.  More likely than not, you’ll fire off an email, maybe a text, or post a document and notify the client to login to your secure client portal.

  • This is perfectly fine if the information you have to convey is cut and dried: not controversial, unexpected, upsetting, or likely to provoke a series of questions.
  • For best results, prime clients at the first client meeting. Let them know to expect emails, texts, etc. when you have routine information to convey.

When Client Convenience Rules Communication

Some might argue this should be the gold standard 100% of the time: choose the communication method the client prefers or finds most convenient.

While I understand the spirit behind this point of view, it ignores some important realities. Consider this typical scenario: Client sends you a question by email or text, but is unclear in what she is asking or leaves out key details.  In the name of letting the client control the means of communication, you can:

  • Begin an inefficient exchange of messages in an attempt to clarify the question.
  • Spend an inordinate amount of time “issue spotting,” then answer every conceivable variation of the client’s real question.

Have I made this mistake?  Yes, indeed.  But the goal here is to do better. Neither of these choices is a good way to go.

  • Client convenience/preference can rule when you have straightforward information to convey.  [Spot a theme here?]
  • If the client is being murky, don’t text or email.  Pick up the phone.  You’ll get to bottom of the real question far more quickly.  Send back a quick message: “Let me call you to discuss this.  Is 2:00 p.m. a good time?”

Purposely Choosing a Communication Method that is Inconvenient for the Client

If we’re being truthful, most lawyers have done this at one time or the other.  You leave a voicemail at home because you know the client is at work.  You send an email late at night when the client is likely to be sleeping.  You mail a letter instead of picking up the phone to talk.

Avoidance, much?

If you occasionally choose a means of communication that avoids contact with your clients, don’t worry about it.  You might legitimately go this route to simply get something done.  [Your convenience is driving how you communicate.]

But if you find yourself avoiding clients (plural) repeatedly (chronically), stop and reflect. Most lawyers who choose an “avoidance” means of communication are doing it because:

  • They anticipate the client will be unhappy about whatever information it is they have to convey – or –
  • The client is already unhappy [which could be reasonable or unreasonable]

Chronic avoidance can become chronic procrastination, which is a no-win for everyone. Lawyers who repeatedly procrastinate are anxious, stressed, and sometimes depressed. They find it impossible to break the self-perpetuating cycle of avoidance: as clients become more and more unhappy because the lawyer isn’t communicating, the lawyer retreats even more – not checking email, not opening postal mail, allowing voicemail to fill up, not reading texts.

If you see yourself going down this path, or if you are looking for resources and advice on how to communicate bad news to clients, help is only a phone call away.  Contact the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program.  Assistance is free, confidential, and non-judgmental. Outside Oregon? There are national hotlines and lawyer assistance programs in other states.

Communicating in a Way that Builds and Supports Client Relationships

At the risk of revealing my bias, this is the sweet spot where you should strive to be.  So before talking on the phone really does become a lost art, try to cultivate a “relationship” approach when you communicate.  Follow these guidelines:

  • Talk about communication at your initial client meeting.  Let the client know what to expect and set the tone.
    • My goal is to keep you informed at all times during your case.  I will email (upload) routine updates and documents.
    • If you have a question, feel free to call (text, or email) me.  I set aside (mornings) (afternoons) to return calls and messages.
    • If the answer to your question is complicated, or if I need more information to give you an answer, I may ask to set up a telephone or video conference.
    • I like to meet with clients in person to (talk about settlement offers, prepare for deposition, prepare for trial, etc.)  If you want to meet in person, feel free to (call my assistant or me) any time to set up an appointment.
    • You are welcome to drop off documents (any time, after 1:00 p.m.).  If you want to talk (leave me a note or speak to my assistant so we can schedule a time to meet).
  • Consider the information you need to convey and remember your goal in communicating:  you’re trying to build and support a better client relationship.
    • Convey bad news in person, by video conference, or over the phone.
    • Discussing something complicated?  Use the same approach.
    • Is your client prone to anxiety?  Do you anticipate the client will have a host of questions?  Ditto on the approach.

Potential Legal Malpractice

If you’re an Oregon lawyer, call the Professional Liability Fund at 1-800-452-1639 and ask to speak to an on-call claims attorney in any of the following circumstances:

  • You believe you committed malpractice
  • The client is threatening to sue or is asserting you malpracticed
  • You are served with a summons and complaint

Firing a Troublesome Client

Sometimes the communication issue really boils down to the fact that you need to fire your client.  Read more about firing clients here.  Carefully review “Withdrawal from Litigation: Client Confidences,” OSB Formal Opinion 2011-185, Scott Morrill, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: How to End a Relationship, Part II, and Helen Hierschbiel, Tying Up Loose Ends: How to End a Relationship.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

Postscript

For another twist on the subject of client communication, see Linn Davis, Good Communications: Keeping Clients and Ethical Obligations Satisfied.

Using “Soft Skills” to Improve Client Retention

“Soft Skills” are attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others.  They include traits like diplomacy, patience, empathy, problem solving, conflict resolution, adaptability, collaboration, and communication. Cultivating “soft skills” can improve your chances of getting a job or retaining clients:

A firm that respects client service will stay open. A firm that makes client service a priority will remain successful. How do we accomplish this? It should be innate, and yet, as mentioned, communication is still the number one complaint. Given that so many people have access to and contact with clients in a law firm on a daily basis, we must stop taking “soft skills” for granted, and start placing a higher value on teaching and attaining those skills. Marni Becker-Avin, Developing Lawyers’ “Soft Skills” – a Challenge for the New Era in Legal Services.

How Can You Cultivate Soft Skills

Soft skills can be improved through learning and by example:

  • Online/self-help learning is available through resources like MindToolsSkillSoft, or Alison.
  • Prefer books?  I totally understand.  A quick search on Amazon reveals many titles to choose from.
  • If you do better in a brick and mortar setting, look for leadership, communication, and conflict resolution classes at your local university or community college.  [Don’t forget to check adult education course listings.]
  • Keep an eye out for pertinent continuing legal education (CLEs).  The PLF has an oldie, but goodie: Building a Successful Practice through Improved Client Communication.  From the landing page, select CLE > Past CLE.
  • Find a mentor.  If you are a newer lawyer in Oregon, you are required to participate in the mentoring program as a condition of admission.  However, your mandatory mentor may or may not be the best model for “soft skills.”  Don’t hesitate to seek out a secondary mentor if needed.  If your mentor sits in on client interviews, seek his or her feedback on your technique and style.  [Be mindful of confidentiality issues and conflict screening.]
  • Use client satisfaction surveys.  Tough love, yes indeed!  But there is no quicker way to find out if you have a “soft skills” gap.

 [All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]