4 Ways Lawyers and Paralegals Can Keep Their Clients’ Trust

It can be hard for clients to entrust paralegals and lawyers with their lives, but treating the client with respect and keeping them informed can help solidify the relationship and keep their trust.

Show Proper Respect

Treat every client like they are your only client. Focus on them and their case exclusively when you are on the phone or when meeting with them. Lawyers and paralegals should be polite to clients and any clients of clients that they may have to deal with. They should learn how to pronounce names correctly and remember them when talking to your client or discussing their case with another lawyer, court representative, vendor or any other third party.

Confidentiality is a requirement of the profession, so let your client know you take this seriously. Lawyers and paralegals should never discuss your client’s situation with another person who is not professionally involved in the matter without their permission. To protect your client’s privacy and sensitive information, make sure all copies of important documents are shredded. Professionals, like those at Vital Records Control, know that shredding the correct documents is of utmost importance. After all, information in such a situation is incredibly sensitive.

Constant Communication

Communicate with your client on a continuing and regular basis and let them know what is going on with their case. Return all phone calls from the client, even if just to acknowledge that you received a voicemail. Paralegals can return most calls for the lawyer, but returning phone calls is a must if you want to gain and keep your client’s trust. Keep a record of phone calls to and from your client. Every time a lawyer or paralegal sends an email or letter regarding your client’s case, copy them on the email or send a copy of the letter to them. Also, send them a copy of correspondence you receive and make them aware of phone calls you take or make regarding their situation.

Provide Evidence of Accountability

Handle your client’s money with kid gloves. Again, this is a legal requirement, but it bears repeating. Deposit your client’s funds in your company trust account and never borrow from a client’s funds. You can make sure they are aware of this by documenting all payment or disbursements that come out of their account. As soon as you receive a check from your client or third party, make a photocopy of it for the file and handle it without delay as a deposit or otherwise. Don’t let checks languish in the file unless they are not being deposited for a specific reason.

Keep careful track of attorney and paralegal billing and send the client a regular statement that shows what they are being charged for and what funds have gone into and out of their account.

Spell Out Your Relationship

At the beginning of your relationship with the client, put your agreement down in writing in the form of a representation agreement. State clearly what you are agreeing to do and what scenario might require a new representation agreement and retainer, if applicable. For instance, if you are representing him or her in a lawsuit but would require an additional retainer for a potential appeal, make sure this is clear. If they are paying a retainer or you are taking a percentage of a settlement, make sure they know what outside costs they would be responsible for, such as medical records, court reporters for depositions, private investigators or mediators. Make sure your client signs the agreement and has a copy.

For paralegals, be transparent with your client. Let them know you have their best interests in mind and keep them aware of what you are doing to help reach a beneficial resolution to their case. Let the client know what you as a paralegal will be doing in their case and how you will be assisting them throughout the life of the case. 

Best Practices in Legal Calendaring Management

Staying on top of a law firm’s court calendar involves many tedious tasks, punctuated by stress, while the stakes could not be higher. We have gathered some tips on how to make this assignment easier and more reliable that take the monotonous nature of this work into account.

Unless they are managed carefully, using proven technologies and best practices, court calendars are extremely prone to error. Unfortunately, judges can be unforgiving to law firms that miss a filing deadline or court date, and many will toss out cases if documents or other court-related information is late.
—— Weaknesses in the court calendaring system ——
In fact, weaknesses in the court calendaring system represent the largest vulnerability most law firms have, particularly when it comes to malpractice lawsuits.
In a “Profile of Legal Malpractice Claims,” the American Bar Association found that calendar/deadline-related errors are the leading cause of legal malpractice claims. A total of 16.63 percent of those malpractice claims were due to the firm not knowing or not properly responding to the court calendar: 7.09 percent of malpractice claims were for failure to know/ascertain a deadline; 5.19 percent of malpractice claims were for failure to calendar properly; and 4.35 percent were for failure to react to the calendar.
While the implications can be severe for firms that miss court deadlines, it is easy to understand why so many errors can be made during the life of a matter. A properly managed court calendar requires multiple steps and a great deal of follow-up. As soon as a matter goes before the court, court dates must be accurately determined That can involve Internet searches - for jurisdictions that offer such information online - or it may involve multiple calls to various courthouses.
Both large and small firms often struggle with the calendaring process. Large firms, by their nature, have more work to coordinate between more attorneys, and they may practice in multiple jurisdictions. It is also challenging for small firms, though, that have limited resources and are not familiar with matters outside of a small number of specific jurisdictions. And, according to the above referenced ABA Study, the smaller the firm, the greater the likelihood of being sued for malpractice.
—— Multiple steps to follow ——
Once the initial court date or filing deadline is determined, it must be accurately calculated; failing to factor in an obscure local holiday or forgetting that one month has 31 days and not 30 can throw off the entire equation and cause an attorney to miss an appearance or filing deadline. The same can happen when different courts have different rules - where one jurisdiction may allow 60 days for filing documents, another may only allow 30.
Next, all deadlines and appearances must be accurately recorded, which can be more difficult than it sounds; for busy attorneys and law firm staff, it may be easy to write down a date incorrectly. Then, the calendar for each attorney involved in the matter must be updated. For each date for every matter, attorneys or staff must double-check that no changes have been made to the court calendar. This process needs to be completed routinely as long as the matter is still open.
While it is little wonder that mistakes happen, at the same time, it is easy to understand why clients have little patience for attorneys who lose cases because of a “book-keeping” matter. Even if an attorney is only rebuked for missing a court date, the trust of the client may be irretrievably damaged. Fortunately, there are best practices that can minimize the risk of missing court dates, while at the same time increasing efficiencies and allowing attorneys and staff to focus on more substantive legal work.
—— Type of Calendar ——
There are a dizzying number of calendar types and formats, which can range from simple paper to sophisticated rules-based databases.
Before implementing any new methods or calendar types, it is important to understand and evaluate what types of calendars each attorney is using. At smaller firms, or at ones with lawyers allergic to technology, the old-fashioned paper calendar may still be in use. A paper calendar may offer certain appeal - it requires no training, it is inexpensive and easy to view at a glance. But paper calendars also contain numerous limitations. Unless the firm has a solo practitioner, someone must be constantly erasing old dates and inputting new ones. With paper, there is typically not a back-up in case the calendar is lost or an office disaster occurs. In addition, the attorney must be in the office to view it so it cannot be accessed remotely.
Common calendaring programs that come with software (i.e. Microsoft Outlook®, etc.) are another option, and they offer some advantages over paper calendars. They are relatively inexpensive and generally simple enough that most reasonably tech-savvy administrators and lawyers can figure them out with a minimum of effort. Many can be synced with PDAs and checked from home or the road. However, these calendars are still highly prone to error; those in charge of the court calendar still must go through the tedious process of determining the initial court dates, then inputting that data accurately every single time. Information still must be checked and double-checked frequently.
Beyond the generic programs are legal-specific calendaring programs, which offer numerous advantages for law firms. There are several types of these calendars. For firms that have a great deal of litigation, or for those that operate in many jurisdictions, a thorough rules-based calendaring system may make the most sense. Sophisticated rules-based calendaring systems offer built-in court rules databases and holiday tables that accurately calculate court dates. If a rule changes, these systems can automatically adjust the dates as necessary. When considering such a system, a firm should carefully examine how thorough the rules are - will they include all of the jurisdictions and practice areas that the firm needs, or expects to need, in the future?
While these rules-based calendaring systems are thorough and complete, they can also be expensive and may require extensive training for users. For many firms, an online legal date calculation service may make more sense. Often, these services require no new software and minimal training, which makes them ideal for many smaller firms. Upon logging onto the Web site, staff and attorneys generally only need to enter a few pieces of information and all of the relevant court deadlines are automatically generated.
—— A Master Calendar ——
Another best practice involves a centralized, firm-wide calendar. While attorneys often have their own opinions about doing things their own way - including managing their court calendar - each firm should also have a master calendar managed by a well-trained, experienced individual that is constantly updated. Otherwise, dates can be missed and attorneys who are assisting on a matter may miss out on crucial information.
Firms should also consider the different viewing formats of the master calendar. Does each practice group or office want to view only its own dates? If so, the calendar program should be able to offer this flexibility.
It is also much easier to back-up and maintain a master calendar. The calendar should be backed up frequently, and the back-up should be stored off-site. If a fire or other disaster should hit the firm’s offices, the loss of the court calendar can be severely problematic, and attorneys and staff may find themselves scrambling for days to recreate it.
—— Technology ——
Firms should also carefully consider what types of technology are important in a court calendar.
Many attorneys and staff want to be able to download court calendars onto their mobile devices and receive updates electronically when they are on the road or working from home. A calendaring system should allow for an easy interface with the firm’s current technology, making the transmission of deadline updates seamless.
When choosing a court calendaring system, firms should ask many questions about the type of support that comes with it. When a question or problem arises, it is important that attorneys and staff receive answers promptly.
—— Workflow Processes and Accountability ——
Determining the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved with the court calendar is also extremely important. With all of the different moving parts involved in court calendaring, each attorney and staff member must understand his or her obligations in the process. Who submits the information about the case? Who researches the initial deadlines? Who includes these deadlines in the master calendar? Who double-checks the information and completes follow-ups? If these different tasks are not clearly spelled out, something may be missed and errors could result.
Firms should clearly delineate the workflow for each matter, so everyone knows which steps to take and when. The process should be standardized across the firm as well. While some attorneys may balk at changing their current methods, it is important that each paralegal, administrator and attorney follow the same process. A standardized process will also help ensure that new members to the firm are properly trained about how to use the calendaring system. In case the “calendar person” should leave, the firm will be able to continue without missing a beat, as far as scheduling court dates and docketing is concerned.
The calendaring system should also have transparency and accountability built into it. That way, it is clear who made which change to the calendar and when.
—— Billing and Matter Management ——
As more firms begin to adopt matter management systems, the calendaring process should be designed to work with existing client service tools. By tying each important court date and deadline into other information about the matter, such as contact names, case notes and other documents, firms can save time and improve their client service.
Some rules-based calendaring systems or deadline calculation services also allow for easy bill back to clients. This simplifies the billing process for firms and allows them to better track how they are using the court calendar.
—— Firm-Wide Usage ——
Once a firm identifies best practices and the right calendaring system, it is crucial that everyone uses it. Attorneys should not be allowed to opt out, because this would seriously cut into the efficiencies and effectiveness of the court calendar. The best way to ensure this is to find senior partners who can champion the project and who have the authority, or the charisma, to bring everyone else on board. Typically, the Risk Management Partner (or partner in charge of Risk Management), who appreciates the gravity of the situation, would be an ideal champion.
Many law firms can offer horror stories about missed deadlines that led to malpractice suits. This happens to large national firms as well as to solo practitioners. When it comes to calendaring errors, there are no easy solutions, regardless of size.
Changing the court calendaring system may at first seem like an expensive, daunting undertaking. However, the alternatives are equally daunting. Spending hours on the phone tracking down dates in unfamiliar jurisdictions is also a huge task. Then, there is the stress and time involved in entering and re-checking all of the firm’s dates and deadlines. And, of course, if you do make a mistake, there is the time, embarrassment and expense of defending a malpractice suit.
Fortunately, with the right technology and best practices, firms can significantly reduce the time they spend maintaining the court calendar, along with the risks they face from potential malpractice suits. This allows firms to focus more on helping their clients through the practice of law, not the court calendar.

Effective Knowledge Management Initiatives for Paralegals

Knowledge - a critical asset for legal professionals

Legal knowledge is what can differentiate one firm from its competitors. The same is true for legal departments. Acquiring, updating, and accessing knowledge is a critical skill-set required for containing legal risk exposure and legal costs. Performing legal knowledge management for a firm is an important part of a paralegal's job. 
Legal Knowledge Management

Knowledge management is a concept borne out of the opportunities and challenges brought by the information age that we now live in.
—— What is knowledge management? ——
Knowledge management is more than managing databases and legal document depositories. It is about identifying all the types of knowledge your organization and co-workers posses and continuously generate. It is also about clients and the industries in which they operate. It is about regulators, opposing counsels, and judges. In other words, knowledge management is not only about content and processes, it is also about people and how they use the available tools to more efficiently share and access knowledge.
There is explicit knowledge, the one already on paper, and tacit knowledge, the one used on a day-to-day basis but which is not fully articulated.
Lawyers and paralegals have always managed their knowledge in both forms, but until recently, no tools were available to systematically capture and update the available knowledge. The big challenge in this regard is to balance the added overhead cost in time and effort that these tools bring with them with the benefits that they can unlock, especially in larger organizations where the members of the organization are often highly specialized.
—— Databases of legal opinions and best practices documents ——
Work product repositories are key elements to capture and disseminate a law firm's knowledge. Usually, these databases are built by the IT department, but paralegals play an essential role.
In some practices, paralegals define the database format and content. They can, for example, decide which documents are captured in theses repositories. In other instances, paralegals are only responsible for maintaining the content of these databases and for regularly collecting and publishing documents.
These tasks can take a significant part of our time and are difficult to bill.
However, by making sure that databases are up to date and that the documents we add to them have been approved by the relevant hierarchy, we also must ensure that lawyers will feel confident to delegate substantial, interesting and billable drafting work to us.
—— What other knowledge could we help capture ——
  1. Methodology: for example, partners can work with junior lawyers and paralegals to capture the mechanics of the due diligence process used in past cases and projects while working on mergers and acquisitions. Once created, these methodology repositories can help significantly decrease the level of effort and sometimes frustration we face when we are given inconsistent or no instructions on how to conduct a new project. They provide a clear approach for us to use and can lead to a significant improvement in the quality of the work produced by us and, as a consequence, to better results for the firm, too.
  2. Past projects and lessons learned: as paralegals, we constantly draw on our prior experience. The depth of knowledge about past projects influence the way we will perform in the future. Capturing knowledge about past projects can include a description of the project, associated documents, as well as the skill-set and expertise of the members of the project team.
  3. Knowledge about third parties: we work with many third parties over time and acquire knowledge about them, if we store and organize this information, we can save time and decrease the number of duplicate inquiries regarding possible contacts, in state or foreign jurisdictions, for example.
  4. Knowledge about the firm's market position: this information may be useful to managing partners to develop a taylor-made business strategy for a certain market, strengthening the firm overall.
—— Content organization ——
The way we categorize content will determine the ability to retrieve it in the future.
Categorizing content based on a firm and well thought-through taxonomy is critical for being able to quickly and efficiently retrieve the information later. Obviously, it must take place at the content capture stage, as it is often to expensive and time-consuming to do it at a later stage. Developing a taxonomy is a complex and time-consuming challenge. Paralegals can be heavily involved in this process. If you take part in the developing of a taxonomy, make sure that it can be applied to content in all systems and applications and meet the needs of all practice groups and offices of your firm, now and in the future.
—— Size of the knowledge management organization ——
The biggest issue in this economy is that a knowledge management organization needs sufficient dedicated resources to be implemented efficiently.
Otherwise, it will rely too heavily on paralegals, and with the demands of client work, knowledge management will tend to become a secondary task. In many cases, without dedicated resources, be it full-time or part-time, the knowledge management initiative risks floundering over time.
—— Relationship with IT ——
The firm's technology platform plays a major role in supporting the capture and delivery of knowledge at your firm.
If you're involved in the knowledge management initiative of your firm, it is important to have a good working relationship with the IT department to ensure that you have the right technology tools that can pull together knowledge from different sources into a single user interface.
Working closely with the IT department will also guarantee that knowledge is not stored in many disparate systems and applications with a high risk of duplication of content in those systems, resulting in many inefficiencies.
It will also ensure that some content should only be made available to a limited number of staff working with the client to protect confidentiality. Similarly, there should be different levels of access to your firm's financial information for example.
—— Billing and compensation system ——
In a firm where paralegal compensation is based solely on the number of hours billed, there is usually no or only little room for non-billable time spent on knowledge management. Thus, knowledge management initiatives have only succeeded within organizations that have make it a criterion in the assessment of the performance and the compensation of paralegals and that have rewarded the staff involved in the initiative accordingly.
Technology has allowed the expansion of the work-oriented hours that we can put in without feeling unduly burdened.
With knowledge management, law firms and law departments are now trying to redefine the workday, so as to eliminate the time wasted in the normal course of the business day. Recapturing this time will allow a radical improvement in our productivity. Let's hope that this productive increase will also benefit our paychecks!
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