Failure to Check Spam Folder Leads to Missed Deadline

Court notices delivered via email are a known point of vulnerability for law firms: failure to timely check messages, accidental deletion of court notices, or haphazard review of spam folders.

Now The Researching Paralegal reports on the latest variation of this theme.

A trial court clerk in Florida served an order by email awarding a significant amount of attorney fees to the prevailing party (appellee).  The opponent/appellant claimed it did not receive the order, resulting in its failure to file an appeal.  What happened? The opponent/appellant’s email system automatically deleted the court’s email as spam.

The opponent/appellant asked the court to vacate the original order on the grounds of excusable neglect.  The trial court declined and Florida’s First District Court of Appeal affirmed. The Researching Paralegal cites these factors:

First, the review of the court clerk’s email logs confirmed that the email with the court’s order was served and received by the law firm’s server. Second, the law firm’s email configuration made it impossible to determine whether the firm’s server received the email. Third, the law firm’s former IT specialist’s advice against this configuration flaw was deliberately rejected by the law firm because its alternative cost more money.

The trial court concluded the law firm made a conscious decision to use a defective email configuration merely to save money, which was not “excusable neglect.”

Another nail in the coffin was testimony by the appellee’s attorney. His firm assigned a paralegal to check the court’s website every three weeks to safeguard that his firm would not miss any orders or deadlines.  The court held that the appellant had a duty to check the court’s electronic docket.

Emerald Coast Utilities Authority v. Bear Marcus Pointe, LLCCase No. 1D15-5714, Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 1st Dist (2017).

What can we learn from Emerald Coast?

  1. Whitelist important email. Set your spam or junk email filters to allow receipt of messages from approved senders or domains. Include courts, administrative agencies, key clients, opposing counsel, and any other senders whose email you don’t want to miss.
  2. Review spam quarantine summaries daily. Aggressive spam filters will occasionally block senders and domains you have added to your whitelist if the filter finds content in the email to be possible spam.  Addresses and domains may also change, causing new notices to be marked as spam.
  3. Don’t forget to look at your junk mail folder, another place where legitimate messages can land.
  4. Check online court dockets. Weekly will work for most firms; others may need to login daily, depending on case volume.
  5. Listen to your IT staff.  Here, the IT specialist argued against automatic deletion of junk and spam messages and recommended hiring a third-party vendor to handle spam filtering.  He also suggested investing in an online backup system, another idea rejected by the law firm.  Following either of these recommendations may have prevented the firm from missing the deadline.

A few more takeaways

  • It should be clear, but just in case:  everyone needs a backup system. If you can’t afford the cost of an online subscription, buy an external hard drive on sale and use the backup utility built into your operating system.  For backup protocols and additional backup options, see How to Backup Your Computer from the Professional Liability Fund (Practice Management > Forms > Technology).
  • Can’t afford a third-party vendor for spam filtering or another IT task?  Understandable, but the work itself still needs to get done. This may mean you, your partner, or your staff.  Technology is a tool, not a substitute for human judgment.

There are some other interesting twists and turns in Emerald Coast.  For examplethe law firm also refused to join in on a motion for a case management conference – a step that would have likely revealed the existence of the attorney fee award.  Additionally, automatic deletion of spam wasn’t the only email configuration procedure that caused problems for this office.  If you have a few moments, read the full opinion here.

Beverly Michaelis – All Rights Reserved 2017

Choice of Entity for New Lawyers

coffee-cup-and-docs-bought-at-ssChoosing a legal structure and entity type for your law firm seems like an easy decision. But is it? Consider the following scenarios:

New lawyer establishes law practice with the goal of becoming an associate

If this is you, being a straight-up sole proprietor may be the best choice, assuming you have no employees.

A sole proprietorship is the simplest and most common structure chosen to start a business:

  • No formal action is required to start your business
  • It’s inexpensive
  • No papers to file
  • Nothing to dissolve
  • Simple tax preparation

When you’re ready to make the move from running your own practice to becoming an associate, the transition couldn’t be any easier.

On the downside, sole proprietorship means you have unlimited contractual liability and potentially higher taxes.

But how significant is the liability exposure?

Lenders, property managers, and others with whom you do business will typically require a personal guarantee for loans, leases, or other business transactions.  A personal guarantee means YOU are on the hook, even if you form a professional corporation or single-member limited liability company. As a result, contractual liability protection doesn’t count for much in evaluating whether to form an entity.

The real choice between sole proprietorship and forming a PC or single-member LLC comes down to taxes and the trade-off between potentially saving money (with entity formation) and simplicity (going with the sole proprietorship model).  Talk to a CPA so you can make an informed decision.

What if I’m planning to practice business law or intellectual property?

Why would your area of practice make a difference?  And didn’t we just say entity choice is driven by risk aversion – wreaking whatever benefit you can from contractual liability protection – and saving money – courtesy of a lower tax burden?  So what difference could practicing business and IP law possibly make?

If your goal is to help clients form entities and protect intellectual property, it could look a little odd that you haven’t followed the usual formalities in establishing your own business.

Fair or not, client perception counts.  So does marketing.  And part of marketing is how you brand your law firm.  Appending a PC or LLC designation to your business name may actually be an important part of how you choose to present yourself to potential clients.

If you plan to have employees …

This is an entirely different ballgame.  Without a doubt, form an entity. If you are a solo, choose a PC or single-member limited liability company (LLC).

Both entity types offer liability protection for non-professional torts committed by your employees.  The contractual liability protection discussed above will also kick in.  Talk to a CPA, but the likelihood is that forming an entity will also result in a noticeable tax savings.

If you plan to practice with others …

This is another occasion when forming an entity is a no brainer.  Do it for the avoidance of liability discussed in the preceding paragraph and for the limitation on vicarious liability.  The ideal structure may be to form a sole owner PC or single-member LLC that belongs to the firm’s entity. This may allow you, as the individual lawyer, to completely escape personal vicarious liability.

Multi-tier entities are complex, administratively messy, and no longer have the tax benefits they once enjoyed.  BUT avoiding vicarious liability is a big plus.  To learn more about this strategy, read Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice and Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, referenced below.

Being fully informed in the premises

This post skates over some pretty significant content that deserves more in-depth thought.  Do your homework.  Recommended reading includes:

  • Sole Proprietorship as a business structure choice, courtesy of the Small Business Administration.  While you’re on the SBA site, poke around.  There is a ton of great content here.  And don’t forget about the help and resources available from the Small Business Development Center.
  • Law Firm Choice of Entity, from the ABA Young Lawyers Division.
  • Choice of Entity for a Legal Practice in Oregon, available on the PLF website. Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Lawyers as PCs, LLCs, & LLPs in Oregon, available on the PLF website.  Select Practice Management > Forms > Entity Formation for Lawyers.
  • Tax Considerations for Choice of Business Entity, Chapter 3 of the OSB CLE Seminar Handbook Broadbrush Taxation: Tax Law for the Nonspecialist (2015). Available in BarBooks behind the member login on the OSB website.

Most importantly

Talk with a CPA.  I can’t say this enough.  This is one of the best investments you can make in getting your practice up and running.  A CPA can help you determine whether forming an entity will result in tax savings.  He or she can also help you select an entity type – which is highly driven by tax considerations.

You’ll also learn about property tax, business income tax, business licensing, and other obligations you may not be familiar with – all of which are determined by where your business is located.

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

Naming Your Law Firm

There is plenty of advice out there on how to name your law practice.

LawLytics suggests your name should convey trustworthiness, prestige, and experience. This post from Above the Law pokes a bit of fun at the prototypical ampersand law firms: A, B, C, D & E LLP.  Lawyerist reminds us there are ethical and state regulatory considerations. Yes, indeed!  More on that below!  And I love the fact that WikiHow actually has an entry entitled “4 Ways to Choose a Law Firm Name.” (While the graphics are off-putting, it’s actually an okay read.)

Let me bottom-line it for you: there are times when lawyers can benefit by taking advice from the business world, and this is one of those times.

What’s in a name?

Moving on ……..

What are the dos and don’ts in selecting a name?

The best advice I found was on Findlaw.  A little ironic, since it was written by lawyers for potential business clients, but good is good.  Here is a summary:

  • Make your name descriptive.
  • Say it out loud: how does it sound?
  • What does it look like?  What kind of visual impact will it make on business cards and other materials?
  • Is it easy to understand?
  • Is it unique enough? (Also a legal requirement. Your choice must be “distinguishable upon the record.”)
  • Does it pass the abbreviation and acronym test?  (Make sure the shortened version of your name doesn’t spell out something embarrassing.)
  • Consider the meaning of your name in other languages if relevant to your practice.
  • Avoid names that are too long.
  • Avoid trendy names, since trends come and go.
  • Don’t imply by the name that your practice is somehow affiliated with or approved by a branch of the government. (Also an ethical requirement.)
  • Run your proposed name by family members and friends.

Read the complete post here.  For a chronological list of the steps involved in choosing a business name, see this resource sheet, also on Findlaw.

Assumed business name requirements in Oregon

If you’re an Oregon lawyer you should be proud of our Secretary of State (SOS) website. It really does a good job of educating businesses and providing information.  Assumed business names (ABNs) or what us old-school types call DBAs (doing business as) is no exception.  Here is exactly what you need to know about ABNs in Oregon.  Even better is this graphic, which comes from a PDF brochure on the SOS website:

abns

The ethics of naming your practice

Oregon RPC 7.5(c)(1) prohibits a lawyer from practicing under a name that is misleading as to the identity of the lawyers practicing under the name or that contains names other than those of lawyers in the firm. Oregon RPC 7.5(e) prohibits lawyers from holding themselves out as practicing in a law firm unless the lawyers are actually members of the firm.  This means:

  • Don’t append “and associates” to your firm name unless you actually have associates (staff don’t count).
  • Don’t use the firm name Smith, Jones, & Taylor if you are solo practitioners sharing office space and not practicing together as firm members.
  • Avoid adding “Law Group” to your name unless are two or more lawyers in the firm (staff don’t count).
  • Nonlawyer names are not permitted as part of the firm name.  You may list nonlawyers on letterhead if the nonlawyer’s status is clearly identified.  For example, if your legal assistant is Alyssa Jones, you may list her on your letterhead head as:

Alyssa Jones
Legal Assistant

Lawyers are also prohibited from using trade names that suggest a connection with government or with a public or charitable legal services organization.

Historical firm names and multi-jurisdictional practice

Using names of deceased or retired lawyers is permitted.  Multi-jurisdictional firms can use the same name in both jurisdictions, “so long as the letterhead listing of firm members indicates the jurisdictional limits of those not authorized in the jurisdiction where the office is located.”  See What’s In a Name: Things to consider before hanging that shingle.

Statutory requirements for PCs, LLCs, and LLPs

If you form a PC, LLC, or LLP, then the terms professional corporation, limited liability company, limited liability partnership or their respective abbreviations must appear as part of the firm’s name. ORS 67.625(1); ORS 58.115; ORS 63.094(1).

What about domain names?

Oregon does not have an ethics opinion specifically addressing the use of domain names.  Other jurisdictions do.  Arizona forbids domain names that imply a special competency or affiliation that is not factually true.  Ohio prohibits domain names that are misleading or claim a specialization.  New York and New Jersey are very particular in their rules.  California doesn’t have a straight-off statement on the subject, but has issued an opinion stating that the rules that apply to “communication” and “advertising” apply to websites.  Presumably this includes domain names.  Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma Texas, and Virginia have also chimed in on this topic.

Oregon lawyers are advised “to be mindful of the overarching prohibition against misleading communications” when selecting a domain name.  That seems like pretty good advice to me.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017