You love your clients. In fact, for 64 percent of you, helping clients is the thing that you love most about practicing law, according to a 2015 survey conducted by Clio.
This isn’t a surprise. After all, you wouldn’t be pulling 12-hour days at a job you weren’t fully committed to. But dedication to your clients isn’t the only commitment you need to be mindful of. You also have a duty to uphold the law and to ensure the well-being of yourself and your firm.
These commitments don’t need to be in opposition. In fact, they often go hand in hand.
Clio’s lawyer in residence, Joshua Lenon, discussed the subject in a webinar entitled Honoring Commitments in Lawyer-Client Relationships, which he co-hosted with Alli Gerkman, Director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers.
Below are a few key highlights. Read on for five tips to ensure you’re doing your duty for your clients (or watch the full webinar: Honoring Commitments in Lawyer-Client Relationships).
1. Be diligent
First and foremost, you have an obligation to be diligent on behalf of your clients. Rule 1.3 in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states, “[a] lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”
A number of items fall under the umbrella of diligence—arriving for appointments on time and managing a reasonable workload, for starters. On top of that, you’ll need to communicate with your clients promptly, whether it’s convenient for you or not.
Beyond your day-to-day commitments, there can be some heavy demands on lawyers in terms of diligence. For example, Comment 1 on Rule 1.3 states, “A lawyer should pursue a matter on behalf of a client despite opposition, obstruction or personal inconvenience to the lawyer.”
What might this look like? For one lawyer, it meant abandoning a $200,000 Ferrari in Toronto floodwaters to make it to his hearing on time.
That’s an extreme example. But, as Joshua points out in the webinar, lawyers can face personal risk to themselves or their property as a result of being diligent to their clients.
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2. Exercise attention to detail
Lawyers are constantly being asked to do more with less. With new law firm technologies and more apps for lawyers being announced all the time, there are plenty of tools available to help lawyers work smarter.
But, that added efficiency comes at a cost—with more to do, there’s more to juggle. As a lawyer, it’s still your duty to make sure all the tiniest details are correct in every legal document you produce.
Tools like PerfectIt, WordRake, and jEugene can help you take care of details in your written work, while features like document automation in your project management software can help make sure everything is properly formatted.
3. Keep a reasonable workload
Diligence is important, but in order to be appropriately committed to all of your clients, you’ve got to keep your workload manageable. This might seem like common sense, but it’s also a requirement: Comment 2 on Rule 1.3 states, “[a] lawyer’s workload must be controlled so that each matter can be handled competently.”
In other words, balance isn’t just a matter of self-care for lawyers—it’s a matter of ethics. It’s no use getting more clients if you can’t provide all of them with appropriate representation.
Make sure you’re properly estimating how long tasks will take, and that you’re keeping an eye on your pipeline of new clients. Technology can make this easier. For example, Clio’s Advanced Tasks, available to Elite plan subscribers, let you estimate the amount of time that goes into a task. You can also set statuses for your tasks, assign tasks to different people, and get reports on your firm’s productivity.
4. Take care of yourself
Taking care of yourself might seem out of place on a list of tips for staying committed in lawyer-client relationships, but it’s actually one of the most important things you need to be paying attention to. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you won’t be in a position to help your clients.
In some cases, the need for self-care is mentioned in state bar rules. In the State Bar of California’s Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3-110 states that “competence” for lawyers includes the “mental, emotional, and physical ability reasonably necessary for the performance of [legal services].”
As per our cheat sheet, make sure you’re taking at least an hour or two a day for your personal well-being—especially if you’re working long days. Your clients (and your health) will thank you for it.
5. Arrive on time
Comment 3 on Rule 1.3 in the ABA Model Professional Rules of Conduct states, “[p]erhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination.”
Just meet your deadlines and get there on time. Seems simple, right? For lawyers who have a lot to keep track of, arriving on time might not be as simple as you’d think. Between meetings, appointments, hearings, and deadlines, there are plenty of places for scheduling errors to pop up.
Late meetings and missed dates can be troublesome for the lawyer-client relationship. As Joshua states, “Even when a client’s interests are not affected in substance, unreasonable delay can cause a client needless anxiety and undermine confidence in the lawyer’s trustworthiness. You can lose the client.”
To keep on top of your busy schedule, use calendaring tools to set up reminders. Google Calendars, iCal, or Outlook are great places to start. There are also more advanced tools, like Clio’s Court Rules feature (available for Elite plan subscribers) that helps you calculate key deadlines based on court rules in your jurisdiction.
There’s only so much you can keep in your head. But with the right tools, you’ll get reminders for appointments and key dates right when you need them.
Put the law first
There’s more than just the lawyer-client relationship to keep in mind when it comes to being a committed lawyer. To be committed to your clients, you’ve also got to be committed to your personal well-being, your law firm, and the rule of law.
Sometimes, your client won’t come first on the list. For example, the acting Attorney General for the United States was fired because she refused to enforce an executive order. As Joshua explains:
She felt that there were questions of constitutionality about the law, and did not see the Department of Justice living up to its professional obligations. Due to her decision, she was asked to step down by the President of the United States.
So it can be not advantageous to live up this commitment, but it’s a commitment that we have chosen to take as a part of our oath every day.
Furthermore, Comment 1 on the ABA’s Rule 1.3 states that as a lawyer, you should “[a]ct on behalf of your client with zeal and advocacy,” but that “[a] lawyer is not bound, however, to press for every advantage that might be realized for a client … [t]he lawyer’s duty to act with reasonable diligence does not require the use of offensive tactics or preclude the treating of all persons involved in the legal process with courtesy and respect.”
In other words, do your best for your clients, but remember that you’re not committed to them above all else. Leaving your car in a Toronto flood is one thing—breaking the law for your client is another.
According to a survey of 24,000 legal professionals conducted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) in 2015, 95.4 percent of survey respondents said that the ability to arrive on time is a critical skill that all lawyers need right out of law school.
The competencies listed here have roots in professional rules of conduct in most cases. They’re obligations, rather than tips for how to better serve your clients. However, if you can go above and beyond in providing diligent and timely representation, you’ll be a cut above your competition, and you’ll be that much better positioned for a long and successful legal career.