Running a law practice or law firm makes us all busy. It is amazing how much can come up in a day. Along with the client calls, there are all kinds of other things that come along with the job. Accounting, calendar management, mail, e-mail, staff issues, timekeeping and billing responsibilities, paying bills in a timely fashion, and keeping your office equipped and running. When I look back over my billing sheets, I am amazed at all the little things that I had to get done, and did get done, and all the time I had spent. Planning works, but there are still so many things that come up in a single day that eat up your time: those things that just cannot wait.
In the meantime, there are those things that you have to attend to or they will pile up and cause you problems. One of the biggest challenges you will ever face is if you receive a request for investigation from the Attorney Grievance Commission. I know the severity of these requests, because I served as Chairperson of the nine-member Commission that sits each and every month, reviewing complaints against lawyers and their responses. The Commission's focus is on protecting the public, and from what I have seen, the public needs protection. From what I have also seen, our profession needs protection. You can protect yourself and your firm by making sure you know the top ways lawyers get themselves and their firms in trouble.
1. Neglect of Client Matters
You may have heard this before, but this is the number one issue raised in a request for investigation (hereinafter "RI"). As you probably have also heard, if you receive a "request" from the Commission, it is not a request at all; it is a demand. This demand requires you to answer, not only for what you have done, but also for what you have not done in the eyes of the "complainant". Believe me, the complaints come fast and furious and it is incredibly easy for anyone (yes, I said anyone) to file an RI against you. With a little over 40,000 lawyers in the state of Michigan alone, and over 4,000 RI's filed each year, it's just a matter of time before most lawyers will have to deal with this element of practice - and the majority of complaints are about neglect. I have written elsewhere about the toll that an RI takes on the attorney or firm involved. I have represented dozens of individuals and Firms since leaving the Commission in 2000. Many times, it is more than a distraction - it can become an obsession: an obsession that will take you away from your practice and your family. The process can last for months, even years.
The fixes are pretty simple, but you have to be diligent. Answer and return your calls. Answer your e-mails. Keep a calendar and have a backup calendar for appointments and Court appearances. Work hard to form reasonable client expectations and systematize your approach. All this may take time, effort, and money, but if it results in preventing even one RI, it is worth it.
I have reviewed thousands of RI's that boiled down to an issue of a simple misunderstanding between a lawyer and his or her client. They sound like:
"But my lawyer was supposed to take care of that."
"My lawyer said I did not have to be there."
"My lawyer did not tell me I would be charged for that."
"My lawyer never told me that this would happen."
There is no end to the "revisionist history" that is recalled by clients when it comes to owning up to their choices and behavior, or to pay the bill. Legal problems are people problems and we rarely get to be everything and solve everything that the client brings to our door. There is usually something the client needs to do, and you will be the reason why the client falls short. Lawyers are blamed - that is all there is to it. I cannot tell you how many times I reviewed cases where the client's story and what the lawyer said happened are exact opposites, and of course, the client's story puts the lawyer on the hook. In every case, it would have been easy had the lawyer produced a letter, note, e-mail or document that clarified the situation. Rarely did I see a client's writing that backed up their story. We can type, write, dictate; it is so easy to put in writing what you are going to do and what the client has agreed to do. My advice is do it. Writing may mean the difference between a fast dismissal of the RI and a Formal Complaint that threatens your future as a lawyer.
3. Taking on the Wrong Client
In the thousands of complaints I have read, I cannot tell you how many I have seen where it was clear that the client was trouble. There are some people who bring trouble with them. They have stories that broadcast this trouble. How do I spot them? Here is how: the stories are "victim stories." Well, many of our clients are victims, so how do you tell? People may be victimized and need help, but rarely is someone a true "victim" in all areas of their life. You can hear them hand out blame. They deal blame out, not just in providing information about their legal woes, but in all other areas of their life. Ask them about their life, ask them general questions. If every story they tell you in the first 20 minutes of a meeting has them cast as the central character in a tragedy, that is a pretty good indication. For every victim there is an abuser, and this pattern foretells a future where you can be just another abuser that needs to be investigated.
Watch for these three potential areas of your practice or your firm's practice. As we always tell our clients, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."