Avoid Ethics Complaints by Taking Notes

Despite lawyers’ efforts to get the best possible results for their clients, sometimes clients are dissatisfied. Their disappointment is often accompanied by finger-pointing; surely someone must be to blame for the outcome of the case besides the client or the opposing party. When the lawyer ends up in the path of that finger, the most common complaint is that the lawyer rarely, if ever, talked to the client and that on the few occasions the lawyer did talk to the client, the lawyer never let the client know what bad events were about to unfold.

For the lawyer who has tried to do everything right, defending against such allegations might be unpleasant but not threatening. Of course the lawyer talked to the client. Quite frequently, in fact. And yes, the lawyer is certain she warned the client about the possible outcome. The client was given the choice of how to proceed and, unfortunately, made a poor choice.

“Sounds great,” says the investigator from the attorney discipline office. “Can I see your notes of those conversations?” “Well, I’m not sure I have notes of every conversation . . . ”

Most of my practice is devoted to defending lawyers against allegations of unethical conduct. As a result, I often review my lawyer-clients’ files for the matters they have  handled. This includes not just the substantive documents, such as pleadings, correspondence, financial documents, etc., but also the parts of the file that one typically does not see in the course of discovery, such as the client questionnaires, the e-mails, the time records, and –hopefully– the notes.

In the last few months, however, finding notes in my lawyer-clients’ files has become the exception rather than the rule. I do not doubt my clients when they assure me that there were multiple phone calls with the client and at least a couple of meetings, but there are no specific records of those contacts: when they took place, what was said, how long they lasted. The ethics investigation is suddenly at risk of being reduced to a battle between “Did not!” and “Did so!” The disgruntled client may be regarded as having a legitimate gripe.

Why bother taking notes?

The value of taking notes should not be underestimated. Beyond providing a first line of defense against a client’s ethics complaint, notes can be helpful in tracking previous conversations with a client. The client does not then have to repeat information or suspect that the lawyer cannot remember the client’s case. For clients who challenge a bill or later demand a copy of the file, the notes fill in the gaps between written contacts with the client and show how attentive the lawyer was to the client’s case (under most states’ ethics rules, your notes are part of your clients’ files and belong to them, so avoid excessive doodling and gratuitous comments about your clients’ mental health). Your notes will also provide the chronology of events on which you may need to rely when explaining your decision to withdraw to the client or the court.

Contingent and flat fee lawyers who eschew time keeping seem to be more prone to avoiding note-taking, perhaps a byproduct of their attempts to streamline their practices. Lawyers who do not keep time records are probably in greater need of good notes than lawyers who bill hourly and can use their timesheets to track very brief conversations with clients, some of which may be written-off. The inconvenience of taking notes while talking to clients from a cell phone while walking, driving, or waiting for some other appointment to begin may have led many busy lawyers to get out of the practice of taking notes. Whatever the reason, the time lawyers save on the front end can come back to bite them on the other.

Making record-making a habit

Note-taking should be a habit, hopefully one developed early in a law practice. Personally I think that hand-written notes are the most efficient way to make a record of a conversation with a client, but it doesn’t matter whether the notes are handwritten, entered into your practice management software, typed into a Word document, scrawled on your iPhone or iPad, or dictated to your legal assistant. The goal is to create a record of the date and time that you talked with the client and, even for short conversations, some indication of the subject matter that was discussed. Lawyers should do the same for conversations with opposing counsel, witnesses, court clerks, prospective clients, supervising lawyers, and so on.  If you are talking, there should be a notepad or a keyboard in front of you.

In addition to the client’s name, the date, and at least some brief description of what the conversation, it is a good idea to note whatever advice or instructions the you gave the client. It is also wise to spend an extra few minutes after the conversation ends to fill in details you did not have time to record and clarify on paper the advice you orally gave the client. At the end of the conversation or meeting, I typically also record in the margin the length of the conversation, usually in tenths of an hour. This can help corroborate the fees you charged a client and refresh your recollection years later about the length of a conversation.

Taking notes is a lot like wearing a seat belt: 99% of the time it probably doesn’t matter whether you do it or not but it is the other 1% that you are preparing for. Take notes. The license you save may be your own.

(Photo: http://flic.kr/p/8HNqQi)

The More Things Change, the More Hourly Billing Will Stay the Same

Sphinx1 The More Things Change, the More Hourly Billing Will Stay the Same Tuning in to the live tweets last week from the opening of the Association of Continuing Legal Education conference in New York City (it may sound dull, but they are a hard partying group!), there was much talk at the plenary session about  the allegedly irrevocable changes occurring in the legal profession because of the fallout from the Great Recession. Familiar themes: hourly billing is evil, the leveraged-associate model is on its way out, law firms will never be the same, etc. This has been the drumbeat of blawggers, consultants, and plenary speakers for at least two years now. I think they get a kick out of seeing the color drain from lawyers’ faces.

Fortunately, the old French saying remains true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Seemingly huge upheavals often have less long-term impact than we expect.  After 9/11, many people thought we would all be singing Kumbayah for at least a generation. Ten years later, the music has faded.


According to statistics published by the ABA, there are about 1.2 million lawyers in the country, about 74% of whom are in private practice. Of those 900,000 or so lawyers, 76% practice in firms of fewer than 20 lawyers, and the vast majority of those lawyers are in firms of five or fewer lawyers.

In what areas do most solo and small firm lawyers practice? By my own estimates: Family, criminal, personal injury, workers compensation, insurance defense, estate planning and probate, plaintiffs’ employment law, consumer, bankruptcy, and small business litigation and consulting. In other words, predominately individuals and small businesses.

The issues that large firms are facing—large corporate clients wising up to the abuses of the billable hour, competition from international mega-firms—are not likely to affect the vast majority of solo and small firm practitioners. For lawyers representing individuals, the law is local. Family and criminal law attorneys, for example, face little competition from lawyers outside their geographical area. Individuals in need of legal services tend to seek out lawyers in small firms that are close to their homes or businesses, where the cost structure is lower and where they get personal attention. That is not likely to change.

Regarding legal billing structures, personal injury and plaintiffs’ employment lawyers have had an “alternative” fee structure for decades: contingent fees. That is not likely to change. Criminal, bankruptcy, and many estate planning lawyers have been using flat fee billing for years. The concept is nothing new to them.  It seems unlikely that their practices are headed for a revolution.

As for the solo and small firm attorneys charging on an hourly fee basis, particularly the litigators, their practices are unlikely to change either. Moving from an hourly fee to a flat fee billing structure requires a lawyer to take on risk. Family law clients  often make their own problems and are unpredictable once a custody battle or other dispute gets underway. Even when the client is an angel, the opposing party or their counsel can unexpectedly drive up the costs of the matter. Why would lawyers want to assume the risk for their clients’ issues? My guess is most lawyers take on enough risk already when they agree to represent a client and will not offer to take a financial stake in the client’s problems.

The clients of solo and small firms also tend to be less subject to the abuses of the billable hour and therefore less likely to seek alternative fee arrangements. Many solo and small lawyers routinely write off the time for short phone calls and e-mails, discount travel time, and reduce bills for unproductive or administrative work. Smart lawyers include all that written-off time on their bills; the clients can see that they are paying for value (a common refrain by flat fee advocates), not to line the lawyer’s pockets. Associates in small firms are more often employed to help get the work done, often at a lower hourly rate, rather than to pad the bill.

There are other entrenched practices in the legal profession that will weigh against changes in the fee model for litigators. There is a substantial body of case law that requires attorney fee awards pursuant to statutes or fee shifting agreements in contracts to be calculated based on an hourly fee. Attorneys liens are typically determined on a quantum meruit (read: hourly) basis. The Rules of Professional Conduct identify the time spent on a matter as an important factor in assessing the reasonableness of a fee. Insurance companies often hire and reimburse lawyers for representing insureds based on hourly fees, except perhaps for the most routine matters. Some areas of practice have clearly changed—many corporations that hire outside lawyers for immigration and intellectual property matters have shifted to small firms and are requiring flat fees. But these tend to be project-based assignments with predictable time requirements and outcomes.

It is healthy to have a debate about the best practices for any industry. Some change in the legal industry will occur over time. But if you are sitting at a CLE plenary session about the practice of law and feel your head spinning, excuse yourself and go splash some water on your face. You need not worry that you will be out of a job by the time you get back to the session.

The More Things Change, the More Hourly Billing Will Stay the Same is a post from Lawyerist.com. The original content in this feed is © 2013 Lawyerist Media, LLC. This feed is provided for private use only and may not be re-published.

Wash That Client Right Out of Your Hair

Many of the posts on Lawyerist focus on how to get good clients; we spend very little time talking about how to get rid of bad clients. As a general rule, the goal is to keep the clients around once they hire you. Nevertheless, for some clients, the lawyer’s advice should be limited to “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Lawyers are typically reluctant to withdraw from representing clients. Several of the most important principles of lawyer ethics —confidentiality, avoidance of conflicts, holding funds in trust— are built on the idea of loyalty to the client. Many old school lawyers believe that once you agree to represent a client, you stick with them until the bitter end, even if you are the one left with the sour taste in your mouth.

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct, however, do not require a lawyer to go down with the client’s ship. To the contrary, Rule 1.16(b), which has been adopted by most jurisdictions, says that a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client if the “withdrawal can be accomplished without material adverse effect on the client.” Note that the rule does not require that there be no adverse effect on the client at all, just that the effect not be material. Presumably, every withdrawal before a matter is completed will have some adverse effect on a client – the hassle of finding a new lawyer, getting that lawyer up to speed, some additional cost to the client, etc.

Often, by the time the lawyer gets to the point of wanting to withdraw, the matter will have progressed far enough that there will be some material adverse effect on the client. In those cases, the lawyer must to look to the other subparts of Rule 1.16(b) to see if the lawyer‘s reason for withdrawing is sufficient to overcome the material prejudice to the client (and, of course to determine whether any presiding court will allow the lawyer to get out). Conflicts of interest, client fraud, and the client’s refusal to cooperate with the lawyer may fall into this category. But there are many cases in which a lawyer has discretion to decide that his or her time would be better spent elsewhere. Here are a few examples:

Do you hear that barking sound? When that car accident case came in, it sounded great. Your injured client was the breadwinner in the family, the other driver was clearly at fault, and there was lots of insurance coverage to go around. As you started gathering information, however, you learned about the client’s pre-existing medical conditions, spotty work history, faulty recollection, and fondness for the drink.

Sure, you could stick with the client and try to get the best deal that you can under the circumstances, assuming that you can readjust the client’s expectations from a high six-figure recovery to something less than the cost of a new car. It is not unusual though to see a lawyer avoid a tough conversation with the client, hope that the client’s injuries will “mature” (a real consideration in some cases, less so in others), and let the file collect dust in a remote corner of the office. These are the types of files that turn into ethics complaints for neglect or non-communication. Instead, if the case is pre-suit and not close to a statute of limitations deadline, you can withdraw.

Sorry, I forgot my checkbook. The first few months of the attorney-client relationship are critical for figuring out whether the client is going to pay the lawyer’s bills. Human beings are remarkably consistent creatures. Clients who pay their bills within a week or two of when they get them are likely to keep doing so. Clients who need three written reminders and a phone call, or who promise to pay and do not follow through, will maintain that pattern throughout your representation. When clients fall behind on their bills, lawyers may become frustrated or angry and cross some ethical line in trying to collect their fees.  Let the next lawyer be the one who ends up representing your client for free. Get out before the receivables start aging.

Talk to the hand. You (hopefully) have several dozen clients. Your client has one lawyer. Some clients are oblivious to this imbalance. Combine that with the high emotions of a custody battle and you may get a client who calls you multiple times a day, demanding action against an estranged spouse. Emotional, needy clients not only eat away at your time but they drain the energy of your staff and may even be abusive when they do not get what they want. Sure, there are ways to manage your client communications. Some clients though are so demanding that they will overwhelm you. Withdraw from representing the problem clients and save your energy for the rest of your docket.

If you do decide to withdraw, keep the explanation simple. Avoid the urge to provide the client with a laundry list of his or her faults. And be generous in refunding fees. That way you look less like the stereotypical greedy lawyer and the client has some funds to try to find a new lawyer, likely one who is less savvy than you are about choosing which clients to represent.

Wash That Client Right Out of Your Hair is a post from Lawyerist.com. The original content in this feed is © 2013 Lawyerist Media, LLC. This feed is provided for private use only and may not be re-published.

Watch out for ethics bumps in flat fees

stack of money11 Watch out for ethics bumps in flat feesAs alternative billing approaches go, flat fees have many fans. Clients like to know exactly what a particular legal service will cost and lawyers like to leverage experience they have gained in providing the same service to others. Sometimes a flat fee even lets a lawyer spend more time on a matter because there’s no concern that the client will feel the lawyer was trying to run up the bill by spending more time on legal research or clever drafting. Flat fees are also important for clients who are at a high risk of future nonpayment. 

The place where lawyers tend to get in trouble ethically with flat fees is when they want the fee to be both flat and nonrefundable. From a definition standpoint, calling a fee “flat� merely says what the amount will be and says nothing about when the client is expected to pay, when the fee will be considered earned, and what portion (if any) the client will get back if the client is unhappy or just decides the lawyer is ugly.

One way to handle the flat fee is to have the client pay the amount up front, put it in the lawyer’s trust account, and state in the representation agreement when the fee will be considered earned, so that the lawyer can take it out of trust and put it in the business account.  This works well for document-intensive projects, such as an estate plan or an incorporation. But even in a criminal matter the agreement could be that 25% of the fee is earned after the arraignment, another 25% after the omnibus, and the rest after trial, with all of the fee earned at any time a plea bargain is reached.

Most lawyers who use flat fees, however, see them also as a way of avoiding having to place funds in a trust account.  Of course, one could avoid trust account issues by having the client pay after the work is done, but getting the money up front is a key part of keeping a law practice afloat.

This is where the ethics problems start.  Traditionally, lawyers in many jurisdictions have only been able to accept a flat fee, payable in advance, and earned upon receipt (i.e. “nonrefundable�) if the fee was considered an availability retainer.  In other words, “I’m willing to take on your manslaughter case, but it could be such a big case that I will have to a) hire additional staff and/or b) turn down other business, so the only way I can agree to do this is if you agree that once you pay me my $50,000 fee, I won’t have to return it if you change your mind a month from now.�  In some jurisdictions, the Rules of Professional Conduct require that the lawyer make special written disclosures to the client about the non-refundable aspect of the fee and that the fee will not be placed in the trust account (if any portion was refundable up front, then it wouldn’t be earned, and it would have to go in the trust account). 

Inevitably, a client comes back a short time after paying the lawyer the fee, after very little work has been done on the case, and says that the client has changed his or her mind so they’d like a refund. The lawyer says, sorry that wasn’t our deal, and the frustrated client complains to the ethics authorities. 

Smart lawyers both follow the technical rules and give the client back some money.  Not-so-smart lawyers . . . well, they spend a lot of time trying to convince the ethics authorities that it was reasonable for the lawyer to charge a 5-figure fee for very little work.  At the end of the day, all fees must be reasonable.

In criminal, bankruptcy, and federal court matters, to name a few, it really can be difficult for a lawyer to withdraw once he or she gets started, and it can be challenging to figure out ahead of time how much work a case will require.  Availability retainers make sense if a lawyer focusses on one of these areas — some cases will be resolved quickly, some will go to trial, and hopefully it will all work out in the end. 

But for practice areas in which lawyers are typically paid hourly, the trend toward lawyers insisting on non-refundable retainers has been troubling to some ethics authorities. Lawyers sometimes take what would just be an ordinary retainer headed for the trust account, call it “nonrefundable� and both deposit it in the business account and refuse to return any money to the client who quits before the work is done. 

This isn’t something that keeps me awake at night.  Lawyers are very heavily regulated — when I remodeled my house, I wrote huge checks to a contractor, and there was no “trust account� in sight.  I think there’s very little risk that a family law attorney who takes a $3,000 retainer up front to start a divorce isn’t going to earn all of that money. But it’s also not fair to the client to set up the retainer in such a way that the lawyer can get paid for not working, especially if there’s no particular cost to the lawyer. Lawyers have to ask themselves if there’s a good reason for making the fee non-refundable, other than to avoid the hassle of using a trust account. 

So keep quoting those flat fees to clients. Just watch out for the ethics bumps.

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Watch out for ethics bumps in flat fees is a post from the law firm marketing blog, Lawyerist.com

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