As we approach the end of the year, it is a great time to run through your practice’s systems to see which ones may be ethics risks in their current state. This will help you prepare for an end-of-year audit of your biggest risks — and plan how to fix them in the new year.
The purpose of evaluating risks before the end-of-year crunch and New Year’s resolution time is to narrow your focus, so you can set priorities and zero in on bigger projects ahead. It seems we spend a lot of time in self-reflection at the tail end of the year. How great would it be to head into the new year with a clearer idea of where to focus?
Think of this “pre” year-end checklist as like a syllabus for your year-end coursework.
List Key Areas of Your Business
To begin this process, list the key components of your practice. For most of us, this will include at least the following:
- Client intake
- Maintenance of client files
- Calendaring of key dates
- Closing/destroying client files
- Trust accounting
- Operating account bookkeeping
- Time tracking
- Client communication
You may also have:
- Office space/sharing
- Virtual assistance (receptionists, assistants, paralegals)
Each practice will differ, but these are some common components of a solo and small firm practice.
What Keeps You Up at Night? Write It Down
With your list in hand, separate the components of your practice into those that keep you up at night and those that do not. Use a yellow pad or simple spreadsheet with three columns labeled “Concern,” “Worry” and “Not Worry,” respectively. Or download the worksheet here.
Do you ever awaken in the middle of the night worrying about a CLE deadline? Put that in the “Worry” column. Know that you have a kick-ass paralegal who keeps excellent track of all client deadlines? Put calendaring in the “Not Worry” column.
The items that keep you up at night will be the first-tier items to tackle when you begin your year-end audit. These may not actually be your biggest areas of risk, but if they raise your stress level, they need to be fixed straight away.
Evaluate Your Systems and Processes Honestly
Beyond the late-night heartburn, are there systems and processes where you really do not have it all together? Be honest with yourself — you know how to spot them.
- Perhaps you operate with spotty client files, yet always manage to find what you need. If you look closely at your systems, you might realize there is not one single complete client file in either electronic or paper form. Put maintenance of client files on your tier-two list for your year-end audit.
- Or maybe you know your malpractice insurance is not adequately protecting you. Are you overpaying because you never shopped around? Are you under- or over-insured? If you updated your practice areas, did you tell your carrier that you expanded into a new area of law? Or, do you just copy last year’s renewal application and send in a check each year?
Any part of your practice where you know you need to do better — even if it doesn’t bother you on an emotional level — needs to be identified as something to improve this year-end.
Remind Yourself Why
It is easy to get swept up in holiday festivities and enjoy a slower time of year for law practice. But remind yourself why it is worth investing time and energy in improving your systems.
Being investigated by the state bar over an ethics complaint is a major stress and serious time drain. Plus, consequences of a bar complaint can range from private admonishment all the way to disbarment.
You might think that ensuring your calendar is syncing to your phone or practice management software is helpful, but not critical, for ethics compliance. In truth, simple systems that help you keep on top of deadlines and return client calls might save you from a major headache with the state bar.
It is well worth the time and effort to shore up weaknesses in your systems.
Begin Looking for Resources
Once you identify your practice’s main pain points, take the next couple of weeks before the year’s end to gather resources for making improvements. Read legal blogs, take a crack at Googling your issues, and begin talking to colleagues. Get a handle on where you can turn when you actually sit down at the start of the new year to make some serious improvements.
Laying this groundwork will make that precious year-end time more productive and valuable. Make 2018 the year your practice runs more smoothly and is more ethically compliant than ever before.
Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of "The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide." In her law firm, Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing full and limited scope representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action, and providing guidance to practicing attorneys on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. In "On Balance," Megan writes about the issues confronting lawyers in the new world of practicing law. She blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.