Practice Management Advisory Service

Lawyer Practice Assistance Program: Practice Tips

  • Publish an e-mail newsletter for your business neighborhood or office building/complex. Request an e-mail address from each neighbor or tenant. Ask everyone to send business announcements, specials, sales, reminders, articles, etc. to you each month. You can put it into one e-mail (with your name and office address prominently displayed) to send to your business neighbors each month. You can include a short article on a legal issue, or you might even include a Legal Tip of the Month!

  • Keep current about malpractice insurance with an the ABA’s Standing Committee on Lawyers’ Professional Liability publication, Selecting Legal Malpractice Insurance. The book provides easy-to-understand information about malpractice insurance policies, a glossary of terms, insurance policy checklists, a pull-out comparison chart to help you choose a policy, and a state-by-state listing of malpractice insurance carriers. It’s available for $15 plus $3.95 shipping by calling the ABA at 1-800-285-2221.

  • Retain good employees without breaking the bank. Improving the working environment and increasing employee recognition can be effective without being costly. Here are 10 low-cost tips to help retain talent:
    • A casual dress code.
    • Flexible hours.
    • Training or mentoring in-house.
    • Surprising a staff member on his or her employment anniversary date with a bonus, gift, or day off (make it different each time).
    • Designating a specific time to brainstorm, discuss new ideas, and share frustrations.
    • Cultivate an atmosphere of this-is-a-terrific-place-to-work.
    • Celebrating achievements by frequent praise (e.g., “We couldn’t have done it without you”).
    • Sharing big and little client victories with your staff.
    • Making maximum usage of part-time employees during peak workload times (i.e., don’t burn out your good employees for the short-term gain of a few dollars saved).
    • Periodically award your firm’s frequent-flyer mileage to a deserving employee. Remember: lost productivity from the loss of key employees costs far more than the costs associated with any positive retention alternatives.
  • Protect yourself when changing firms with the following pointers.
First, have each client sign a release granting you authority to take the file (including all discovery and other property) with you to your new practice. This protects everyone involved.
Second, if you transfer any client retainer balances to your new firm, have your former firm prepare a final statement of account and provide written releases (to be signed by the client) for each retainer balance. Have the firm write a joint check to you and the client for each retainer balance. This will preclude almost all later arguments about who owes whom what, and creates a smoother transition for you and your clients.
Finally, make sure your former firm continues to carry malpractice coverage for work you did while at that firm; your new malpractice coverage probably does not cover you for those prior acts, so be sure to read your policy!    Keep up with your professional reading by always taking one or two articles or journals wherever you go. Whether you are going to court, meeting a friend for lunch, or have a dentist appointment, there’s always a few minutes of waiting time that can be used to catch up on this type of reading. In just 10 or 15 minutes a day you’ll be through that stack in no time!
  • Keep up with your professional reading by always taking one or two articles or journals wherever you go. Whether you are going to court, meeting a friend for lunch, or have a dentist appointment, there’s always a few minutes of waiting time that can be used to catch up on this type of reading. In just 10 or 15 minutes a day you’ll be through that stack in no time!
Do you have copies of the forms used to open the account, in case there is a problem? Does the account comply with your state ethics rules? If you have an IOLTA program in your state, is the interest going to the proper recipient? Bar disciplinary authorities are rather harsh even with inadvertent trust account irregularities, so this is an ounce of prevention worth taking.
  • Schedule one day each month for billing and put it on your calendar well in advance. Except for court-ordered appearances, treat it as a client meeting that should not be canceled or rescheduled. All your bills should be reviewed and finalized as efficiently as possible. (Avoid interruptions and distractions!) Keep track of the amount of time it takes you to complete the task. When you know how much time a task will take, it is easier to begin it.
  • Let your clients know you are always available to answer their questions about your bills. You can make the statement in the initial consultation, and put it in writing in your written fee agreement. Encourage them to read your bills thoroughly when they arrive. Also consider a clause that limits the time a client may question specific charges—say, within 30 to 60 days of receipt—to encourage the client to address the issues sooner than later. Your clients will appreciate your willingness to be open about your fees and services.
  • Never fill file drawers more than three-quarters full so you won’t have to wrestle with jammed files, and you’ll be more likely to put away your client files instead of letting them pile up on your desk!
  • Have a written file closing procedure to close a client’s case to benefit both you and your clients. Here are six steps you can mix and match to fit your practice:
  1. Conduct a Postmortem Session. Give the client an opportunity to ask any and all “final” questions about the outcome of his or her case. It will also give you a chance to review the file and tie up loose ends. Consider making this a no-charge session, as it is as much for your benefit as it is for your client.
  2. Send the Final Invoice. Sending the final invoice as soon as the last task in the case has been performed will give a final accounting or status report to the client in an expeditious manner, and increase the likelihood of collection—instead of waiting for the next billing cycle to come around. Make sure your billing software can accommodate out-of-the-normal-billing-cycle final billing without any flaws in the system.
  3. Return the Client’s Property. Sending the client’s property back immediately after completion of a case, or giving the client a deadline to pick up his or her property from your office, will serve as an additional reminder to the client—the case is over. Also, it will save you from having to store and safeguard any materials that should rightfully be returned to the client as soon as you no longer need them. Prepare a checklist of items returned to the client and have the client acknowledge receipt by signing your form.
  4. Close the File. Prepare a closing file checklist. Make sure the file is culled for any duplicate drafts of documents, legal pads, etc. Separate the items to be returned to the client from what you may want or need to keep. Assign the file a “closed file” identifier and incorporate it in your closed files system. You will store less material, and use up less space in the process, by having a lean and orderly file.
  5. Schedule the File for Periodic Review. Initially schedule the file for review in three months to make sure all return-receipt-requested cards have been received, the final bill has been paid, and all loose ends have been taken care of. Depending on the type of case, you will want to schedule the next review a year or two later to see if the client’s circumstances have changed and the client would benefit from additional legal counseling.
  6. Thank the Client! Make it a habit to send either a card or a letter to the client to thank him or her for choosing you as his or her legal representative. It will go a long way!
  • Leave your telephone number on someone’s voice mail or answering machine, be sure to say it slowly. Many areas of the country now require 10-digit telephone numbers, plus many small office phone systems also have three-digit extensions. You may know your number quickly, but the person trying to write it down does not. Your receiving party won’t get quite as upset having to replay the message several times to transcribe the number correctly. Remember, it’s the small things that set us above the crowd!
  • Take a vacation to reduce stress, but don’t fall into two common traps:
  1. Don’t overplan your vacation. Scheduling too many things can be counterproductive to a relaxing vacation. Avoid rushing to do anything, and leave time to be spontaneous. And just make time to do nothing.
  2. If you feel you must bring along work, laptop, or cell phone, limit the amount of time you spend using them. Otherwise you are cheating yourself and any companions out of a meaningful, refreshing experience.
  • Know how your fees and/or costs can be tax deductible to your clients. If tax deductions are possible, share this information with your clients. Encourage them to have their accountant or tax preparer call you to get information that might maximize their deduction(s). Your clients will appreciate this extra effort—especially if you explain it at no charge!
  • Ask for permission to contact the current lawyer before deciding to take over a legal matter. You might even include such a provision—with a signature line—on your client intake form. Ask the current lawyer what financial arrangements exist and whether the client has an outstanding bill. This isn’t always an easy call, but you may save plenty of financial (and possibly ethical) headaches by making this inquiry before you take over the case.
  • Don’t turn off clients before they ever reach your office! Make sure your receptionist or secretary knows how to direct clients to find your office. (Don’t assume they can give directions just because they come to work every day!) In addition, create written directions that include instructions from starting points around the metropolitan area. Your office should have a clearly readable map that should be faxed to everyone making an appointment. Further, if your office is located in a downtown office building, is the address prominent? If not, add a brief description of the building and include your suite number.
Clients should also be informed ahead of time if parking is provided, and whether there is a parking fee. It is frustrating to drive several blocks to find a parking spot, walk back to an office building, and learn later that parking is available in the same or an adjacent building for free!
No need to frustrate a potential “million-dollar” client, when he or she just might drive off to find another lawyer’s office!
  • Retain a client’s file after the case is closed. It’s a service to the client, protection against possible future claims, and a client retention device. Nonetheless, in this jurisdiction the file remains the client’s property. In fact, if you do keep the file, you are required to keep it for a minimum of five years. See D.C. Bar Legal Ethics Comm. Op. 283.
So what happens with this file after you have held it for the proper time, and then decide the cost of storage is too great, or you simply decide you no longer wish to keep the file? Can you merely discard or destroy the file? Not according to Opinion 283. Because it is the client’s property, “the lawyer should make a reasonable and good-faith effort to notify the former client of the existence and contents of the client’s file and follow the client’s instructions whether to hold, return or destroy the file.” This notification can be time-consuming and often fruitless after five years or more. So what’s a lawyer to do?

Add a provision in your fee agreement that allows you to destroy or discard the file after a stated time period. State that you will retain the file for the client, unless the client requests it sooner. State that if the client does not request you to return the file, that you will discard or destroy the file at the end of ___ years—whatever you think is appropriate for your practice and under bar ethics rules. You can also address the issue of who is to pay for any storage, retrieval, and destruction costs related to the file.

Finally, be sure to draw your client’s attention to this file retention–destruction provision before signing the fee agreement. Initialing the provision may be a prudent step.

It still may be a good idea to send the client a “warning” letter before you destroy the file, but at least you will already have permission in case the client doesn’t respond. Then be sure to periodically discard or destroy these old files.
  • Involve your clients in their legal matters as soon and as much as possible. The lawyer–client relationship that develops is much better than those in which the client is not involved. Ask your clients to draft their own case histories, review documents obtained in discovery, participate in the preparation of pretrial statements, or do any other aspect of the legal matter. As a result, clients obtain some appreciation for the amount of time and type of work involved in preparing their cases, gain some control over their own cases, understand the effort and skill involved in being an attorney, and gain a greater sense of trust and appreciation for your services.
  • Add personality to your business cards. Plain white rectangular business cards are always good to have, but why not create a card that really expresses your personality? For example, bright yellow, for the card of a “lemon law” lawyer. Think of ways to change the size, shape, color and content of your business card to reflect your practice. (For any ethical concerns, see Rule 7.1 for guidance.)
  • Change your voicemail greeting daily—or at least weekly—to reflect your schedule so callers will know whether you will receive their message in ten minutes, ten hours or ten days. There are few things more frustrating for a client than to call their lawyer and get the same “I’m either away from my desk or on another line,” only to find out their lawyer is in trial for three days or in Tahiti for three weeks. Also, if you are going to be unavailable for more than a day, leave instructions on your greeting message on how to reach a real live person if they need to when you’re unavailable.
  • Be prepared for fire as its effects could devastate your practice. The fire doesn’t even have to start in your office suite; down the hall or one floor away, the smoke and water damage could paralyze your practice and harm your clients’ case if papers and evidence are damaged or destroyed. Take a few moments to consider your precautions in case of a fire (or other such disaster) and implement some simple loss prevention measures.
Review the fire prevention and minimization systems in your office. What precautions do you have including smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinkler systems? Could these be upgraded at reasonable cost?

The information stored on your office computers should be periodically duplicated (backed up) onto tapes or disks, and stored at an off-site location. These tapes/disks should not only encompass client information, but firm financial information. An undamaged back-up tape of your most recent billing cycle will keep your cash flowing and save immeasurable hours of lost time and aggravation. (Remember to periodically restore a sample file from the tape/disk to make sure your backup system is really working.)

Important client documents and case evidence should also be protected from fire. Most attorneys do not have the space or resources to house important documents or evidence in fireproof file cabinets. However, there are some things that may be worth the additional investment. A “one-of-a-kind” piece of evidence in your possession should be kept in a fireproof safe, as should evidentiary photos or x-rays.

Finally, keep a confidential copy of your client list, including names, addresses and telephone numbers, in a secure and confidential place out of your office; be sure to update it several times per year. If there is a fire and you cannot get into the office, at least you have a way to contact your clients to let them know the situation.

  • Deal with languishing files and extract yourself from a potentially dangerous problem:
  1. If you are in a small firm, trade the file with a colleague. Approach your partner or another associate and offer to trade your “dog” file for hers. At least this way you don’t already have problems with the client.
  2. Call a valued colleague and ask him or her to lunch. Hypothetically, explain the case. Ask your colleague what he/she would do, where to start, how best to proceed. If the advice is good, buy lunch. Use this help to jumpstart your work on the file.
  3. Open the file and start working on it immediately. (And that means right NOW!) Sometimes our own procrastination is the real problem. Just open the file and start reading it, as ideas and tasks come to mind, write them down. Work on the file for a minimum of thirty minutes. If you can, work longer. When you can’t work anymore, schedule time on your calendar to work on it again tomorrow. As you re-familiarize yourself with the file, it will become easier to work on.
  • Expand your networking efforts to increase business:
  1. Host a social gathering. Invite friends, colleagues and business acquaintances to periodic social gatherings. The party could be at your office or a local restaurant. You might even rent out a health club for an evening.
  2. Call people in the news. When you read newspaper or magazine articles of interest to your practice, circle the names of the individuals who are quoted in the articles. Call the ones who you would like to get to know. Use their quote as an icebreaker. Then ask a follow-up question to keep the conversation moving. If things go well, add them to your contact list.
  3. Volunteer to be the secretary or scribe. When you are newly active in an organization, it is sometimes hard to get to know other members. When you attend a function, volunteer to take notes of the meeting or write an article about the event for the organization’s newsletter. You then have a good reason to call the other members and introduce yourself while preparing the minutes or article.
  • Reassure your clients they’ve hired the right lawyer by immediately showing a little extra client care. Send each new client a brief thank you letter with a gift. The gift could be a recent copy of your firm newsletter, a recent topical article you authored, a business card that lists an unpublished telephone number for the client to reach you in an emergency, or a book related to their legal issues that shows you care about them as a client. (You get the idea.) Then follow-up with a personal telephone call several days later to let your client know you have begun work on the matter; let your client know it is a no-charge call. This immediate special attention helps to retain clients and build positive long-term relationships.
  • Document software/hardware upgrades. This makes it much easier to troubleshoot any difficulties later or to recreate your system if it crashes. It’s a great idea to create a master log on the network (make it read-only, with only authorized people making changes) so everyone can access the information. Be sure to store a copy every time you make a change since if your computer crashes you don’t want to also lose the documentation.
  • Provide clients with a sturdy file folder bearing a label with your firm’s name, address, phone and fax numbers, e-mail, etc. Place a signed copy of the fee agreement in the file as the first document.
Explain to the client that you will send copies of everything related to the case and that the client should place these documents in the folder immediately. Many clients don’t have an adequate filing system, so these documents may otherwise be lossed. By the end of representation (or at any point in between), your client will have a complete copy of their file.
  • Visit www.info.gov. It is the premier gateway to information about the federal government including the U.S. House of Representatives, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and more.
  • Review your practice. Do you need to revise your business plan? Develop a marketing plan? Are your office systems adequate to avoid malpractice? If you need assistance with practice management issues, contact the D.C. Bar Practice Management Assistance Program at 202-737-4700 ext. 3212. They have information and ideas on how to improve your business.
  • Take care of yourself. Here are three tips to help:
  1. Exercise. Exercise is one of the most effective anti-stress, anti-depression tools in behavioral medicine. Try to build reasonable steps to a new lifestyle of increased exercise. Do what you enjoy most; aerobics, short walks, take the stairs, sports, etc.
  2. Try relaxation exercises. Take a five-minute break each afternoon and practice “imagery”—a popular relaxation technique. Imagery is sitting back and remembering a favorite event such as a vacation or a round of golf. Try to use all of your senses (the sounds, the smells, the colors, the feeling of the wind, etc.) and take poetic license (a golf game can be your favorite 18 holes played all together).
  3. Practice good nutrition (and not because your mother said so): Improved nutrition is a very important aspect of behavioral medicine. Lighter meals and less excess weight yield increase energy. Increasing fruits and vegetables (even by one serving per day) is effective. Research has shown that small achievable steps toward a lifestyle change are more enduring and thus more effective than large changes.
  • Make your bills clear, informative and easy to read. Ask several clients, your spouse or other non-lawyer to review several samples of your bills—with names and addresses redacted, of course! Do they understand what work was performed? Can they understand how the amount of the bill was calculated? Is the wording free of jargon and mistakes? If so, you probably have a winning format that your clients will respect and pay.
  • Keep software up-to-date by periodically (2-4 times per year) checking the web sites of the developers of the software on your computers. Software’s commonly released with bugs for which developers release patches, plugs, or service packs to fix or update. You just have to download and install them. You’ll need to know the version of your software to see if you need a patch. You can find this out by opening each software program, clicking “Help” and then “About.” Write down the version number and go to the software developer’s web site and see if there are suggested improvements. If you don’t want to do this all by yourself, there are several on-line utilities that will do this for you for a reasonable fee. If you’ve had your software for quite a while, the odds are that there are free improvements available for it. And remember, do a back-up of your computer data before you update!
  • Use the Windows key on your keyboard (often between Ctrl and Alt) as a shortcut to many Windows functions. Use the Windows key in conjunction with the appropriate letter key to achieve the following results:Windows-C opens control panel
    • Windows-E opens Windows Explorer
    • Windows-F starts Find files/folders
    • Windows-I displays mouse properties dialog box
    • Windows-K displays keyboard properties box
    • Windows-L logoff dialog box
    • Windows-M minimizes all open windows
    • Windows-Shift-M undoes minimize
    • Windows-R displays Run dialog box
    • Windows-F1 starts Help
  • Develop your listening skills. Learn how to communicate attentiveness. Use appropriate body language. Learn how to be still. Don’t play with paper clips. Don’t gaze out the window. Don’t allow interruptions. The resulting benefits are numerous, but most of all, your clients will thank you.
  • Explain fees both verbally and in writing. Remember that clients are often under considerable stress (from their legal problems) when they first visit a lawyer. Your explanation of your fees may be a model of clarity, but it may not sink in. Give your explanation in writing as well as verbally. If a lot of money is at stake (in the eyes of the client), allow the client time to think it over before committing to your fees. Clients who “buy in” to a fee agreement are more likely to abide by it. Periodically discuss the amount of fees throughout your representation. If at any given point the fee does not comport with the client’s expectations, resolve the situation as soon as possible—don’t let it fester until the attorney/client relationship is irreparably damaged.
  • Meet and greet people without turning them away by how you introduce yourself. If you immediately say “I’m a labor lawyer,” few people will ever think to themselves that they will need your services. At that point you may have lost the opportunity to market yourself for any other purpose. Create a five second introduction to repeat when meeting new people (i.e. potential new clients). It should be natural and informative, such as “I am a problem-solver for small businesses” or “I help families plan for their financial future.”
  • Color code your folders so you may quickly differentiate between them in the filing cabinet. Think about how your practice works, and which types of files would best be color-coded. Don’t try to do too many colors—three to five works best. Each time you go searching for a file look only at the files of that color. You’ll save time and aggravation each time you need to find a file.
  • Be prepared for an emergency such as a snowstorm. Keep a list of all office and home phone numbers of clients and opposing counsel. Bring home an updated hard copy of the list—or e-mail it to yourself—every few months. In an emergency you can then contact relevant parties to inform them of the situation.
  • Increase the font size on your wills, trusts, cover letters and other form documents often read by elderly, or soon to be elderly clients. They will appreciate this small touch for many years to come.