Closing a case may seem as easy as hitting a button, cashing a check, and moving on to your next client—but no lawyer is that naive.
Closing a case should never come about only after the substantive legal steps are complete. Instead, a proactive approach, and comprehensive checklist during your case is a far better way to manage expectations, potential disputes, and efficient payment.
We’ve identified seven simple steps that, with some planning and communication, will create a better case flow, cash flow, efficiency in your intake – even prevent ethics sanctions and complaints.
1. Determine the scope of the case before opening
Consistent communication is key in ensuring a smooth caseflow right up to the close of a case. If you determine and document the scope of the case before opening (as required in some States by law) you can manage a client’s expectations of outcomes, time and other related factors.
Rule 1.2, Model Rules for Professional Conduct, addresses the Scope of Representation and Allocations of Authority between Client and Lawyer, stating;
(c) A lawyer may limit the scope of the representation if the litigation is reasonable under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent.
Address, clarify, document, and move on.
2. Be as engaging as possible in your Engagement Letter
A clearly drafted engagement letter should not only set out the contractual foundation of the case; but should also address the scope, billing, and as much detail as you find necessary.
This is your case flow game plan. It can save future disputes with unhappy clients when the results are in, and is even a requirement in certain states—especially when dealing with additional factors such as contingency fees. Consider it a blueprint of workflow to refer to when closing your case as seamlessly as possible.
3. Full Disclosure helps case closure
Don’t just drop mic and exit the building. Discuss closing a case with your client before doing so.
Discuss case closure with full disclosure from the early moments of your case and throughout. Issues you may have documented or mentioned during proceedings may have escaped client’s attention by the final stages—so communicate, remind, and refresh their memory. A checklist of potential closure discussion topics would be a great time saving resource to have in your possession.
4. Solicit feedback
The closing points of a case are the best moments to get genuine, constructive client feedback; especially if you’ve maintained a high level of communication and disclosure throughout. The truth hurts—but delivering low customer satisfaction standards will hurt your business more.
Feedback can help a lawyer streamline workflow as a client may point out and discuss any issues encountered during the course of business, such as type of billing, outdated methods and more. Again, revisit a list of discussion topics on closing a case to consistently engage in and monitor customer satisfaction for personal and professional growth.
5. Create a Narrative Disengagement Letter
Breaking up can get messy – and ending a relationship with a client is no different.
A well structured disengagement letter should be drafted on the verge of case closure and imagine it as a break up letter – addressing everything that happened during your relationship and steps for the future. Inform your client that representation has formally ended, include next steps (if any) your client should take, the outcome of the case, and any additional instructions on what to do should questions arise in the future.
This allows for clarity on any potential disputes and serves as an official record to remind both the lawyer and client of proceeds and events. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
6. Bills, Bills, Bills
Lawyers aren’t accountants by trade, or choice, but out of necessity. Especially for sole practitioners, it’s a futile element of practice to ignore proper billing. Though seemingly obvious, billing remains a needlessly stressful, confusing, and problematic element of closing a case.
The average lawyer gets paid 63 days after invoicing. This can slow down the closing of a case dramatically. Yet studies show that when customer satisfaction is met with efficient invoicing—swift payment follows. Again, if systematically documented (as required in some States), discussed with full disclosure and executed with consistency by a lawyer, billing is an element that can function well.
Clear and quick invoicing will ensure more efficient payment, no ongoing disputes, and can help not only a firm’s cash flow but future client intake.
7. Return all Materials and Retained Trust Funds—but Maintain Financial Records
Like a break up, comes the awkward exchange and inevitable return of items and belongings. Not necessarily CDs and Netflix passwords, but personal content none the less.
Stay in line with ethical and state requirements, and return all essential client materials, trust funds and other relevant materials when closing a case.
Don’t be afraid, however, to be vigilant in retaining certain items; especially financial records. The legally required retention period for storing a client’s records can vary state by state – with the average being five years. Ensure that you have a Trust Ledger Report meeting the rules of your State.
For example, in California, Rule 4-100 Preserving Identity of Funds and Property of a Client – B(3) finds that in line with the ethical obligations as an attorney and due diligence requirements, a lawyer must “maintain complete records of all funds, securities, and other properties of a client coming into the possession of the member or law firm and render a period of no less than 5 years after final appropriate distribution of such funds or properties and comply with any order for an audit of such records issued pursuant to the Rules of Procedure of the State Bar”.
A records management system within your law firm operations is an integral asset to the efficient and ethical closing of a case. Done correctly, this should integrate retention schedules, storage systems and proper training for other staff members in the handling, storing, return and destruction of client data and materials.
On to the Next One
The end of the case can often involve a lot of loose ends to be tied up; so by being proactive, communicative and consistent in your practice from start to finish, this can create a seamless experience for your customer when it’s time to cut ties, and begin a successful relationship with another.