Learning from your mistakes and knowing how to handle them are essential to being a great lawyer with a great reputation. Having the skills and systems to reduce mistakes is equally (if not more) important for lawyers who are bound by the rules of professional conduct.
Although human error is unintentional, it can lead to neglect of client matters and failure to communicate with clients, which carry serious repercussions and are among the most common ethics violations.
Neglect of Client Matter (Rule 1.3)
Rule 1.3 (Diligence) of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) states, “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”
Failure to act diligently and promptly on client matters can result in missed deadlines, subpar work, and irreparable harm to clients. While neglect can be due to a lawyer’s willful actions, it often results from conflicting priorities, faulty calendaring systems, and mental health issues that fuel mistakes.
To act with diligence and promptness, you need to prioritize, focus on important (and not just urgent) matters, and take regular steps toward meeting client objectives and deadlines.
The comment to Rule 1.3, MRPC, states, “A lawyer’s workload should be controlled so that each matter can be handled adequately.” Be willing to turn down cases, delegate tasks or talk to your supervising attorney when you suffer from work overload. When there’s no way to keep up, your withdrawal from a case when it will not harm the client’s interest is certainly an option.
Postponing tasks, especially when they are boring or difficult, is human. But procrastination can lead to neglect of client matters and ultimately, ethics complaints and disciplinary action. Setting up and using calendaring/tickler systems that work for you and mitigate against poor work habits are therefore critical. Your systems should allow you to keep track of filing deadlines and create timelines for specific action steps.
Having a master list of all your clients is helpful. Maintain case notes describing the current status and next steps to be taken in each client matter. Review and update case status reports regularly to prevent oversight and to prompt necessary follow-ups. Create backup processes for dealing with client matters in emergency situations, such as when you are unable to work due to illness.
If you suffer from anxiety, depression, chemical dependence or other mental health issues, seek counseling and professional assistance. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) is a good place to start. It provides free, confidential peer and professional assistance to Minnesota lawyers, judges, law students, and their immediate family members on any issue that causes stress or distress.
Attending to client matters without proper pacing, effective systems, or necessary help, can seriously affect your daily functioning and make you more susceptible to making mistakes.
Failure to Communicate with Client (Rule 1.4)
Rule 1.4 (Communication) of the MRPC imposes a duty to communicate with clients. A lawyer shall promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent is required. A lawyer must “keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter” and “promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.”
Your understanding of what “reasonably informed” and “promptly” means could be different from that of your client. The client might expect you to pick up the telephone whenever he calls, and immediately reply whenever he shoots you an email. Being overwhelmed with multiple priorities makes it harder to provide prompt communication, much less instant responses.
Schedule regular telephone calls or status update meetings with clients to minimize impromptu requests for information. At the outset, you also need to set reasonable expectations concerning attorney-client communication. Describe your telephone and email policies, including how often you check your messages and how promptly you respond.
Even when you do not have ready answers to questions, inform the client that you are looking into the issue and give him an estimate on when he can expect to hear from you. When you’re unavailable, enlist help from your receptionist, administrative assistant or paralegal to respond to clients (without providing legal advice).
Rule 1.4 also requires the lawyer to explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation. Language barriers between the lawyer and client in practice areas such as immigration law and family law are often problematic. Communicate through a professional interpreter, a bilingual paralegal, or even a trusted relative or friend of the client who is fluent in both languages. Keep in mind that miscommunication is possible, particularly when critical information gets lost in translation.
If you and the client agreed to take certain steps in a matter, send a follow-up letter or email describing the action plan. Have the client confirm he understands the status of the matter and the steps to be taken, preferably in writing. Documented communication helps to ensure you are both on the same page and provides an opportunity for the client to make clarifications and corrections.
Minor or technical rule violations caused by mistakes instead of malicious conduct are still subject to disciplinary action, such as admonition or stipulated probation. When they are part of a pattern of misconduct or combined with egregious misconduct, the disciplinary consequences are higher. Moreover, neglect and non-communication (even when they are not due to willful misconduct) often harm the client’s interests as well as your overall reputation.
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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.
The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance.
Photo by: Nicolas Nova