Young Lawyers Hear Tips on Avoiding Common Disciplinary Traps
Trading in casebooks for clients and real cases can be tough enough for young lawyers, but experts caution that a primary concern for newcomers to the profession is to avoid disciplinary trouble. This was a topic of an ABA Young Lawyers Division teleconference, “Making the Transition from Student to Attorney.”
Understanding how to apply the rules of professional conduct, which every law student learns in the classroom, to the actual practice of law can help avoid disciplinary action, said Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
“Young lawyers who have gone into practice need to think about some of the basic ways to avoid ethics issues arising,” Ciolino said. He offered the following advice:
Be diligent when working on cases. Every lawyer faces a case or clients that are either complex or annoying, Ciolino said. These are the cases to which lawyers should pay the most attention, he cautioned.
“You’d be surprised how many lawyers just take a case and do not really move it along,” Ciolino said. “There have been disciplinary cases where lawyers have done nothing on the case.”
Control your workload. “You don’t want to say yes to every partner who asks you to do some work on his or her case,” Ciolino said. “Make sure you take only those cases that you can actually handle.”
Communicate often with everyone involved, including clients, the courts and opponents. Lawyers should scan and send clients copies of all relevant documents as they receive them, Ciolino said, adding that communicating and handling matters diligently will help avoid most problems with clients.
“Unhappy clients lead to bar complaints,” he said. “As long as you are talking to the clients and working on the cases, odds are you’re going to have a happy client.”
Avoid fee disputes. One way to do this, Ciolino said, is to produce a detailed retention letter or agreement that explains in detail what the client should pay, services that will be rendered and the scope of the representation. If you have hourly rates, give your client detailed bills. It helps to provide discounts, and only bill your client for reasonable time and expenses, he said.
Develop a good filing system and go as paperless as possible. Many lawyers lost their files during Hurricane Katrina, Ciolino noted. “Every lawyer come 2012 should be transitioning to, if not entirely [in], a more paperless practice,” he advised.
Cooperate with your state disciplinary counsel if they send you a letter. “A remarkable number of lawyers get letters from our disciplinary counsel and ignore them and throw them away,” Ciolino said. “When you get the letter from the office of disciplinary counsel, respond to it. Respond promptly, and respond accurately.”
Response letters can and will be used against you in future disciplinary proceedings, so make sure you are accurate, Ciolino said.
Be competent by getting a handle on cases and facts. Avoid cases that are unnecessarily complex, Ciolino said. “Assuming most of you are new lawyers, you are still learning the area that you have chosen or are still choosing the area that you ultimately want to practice in,” he noted. “Be very wary of taking cases in areas that are new to you.”
For example, he said, in the criminal justice area, avoid taking death penalty cases and post-conviction appeals, which can be complicated for a lawyer just starting out.
“There are plenty of traps, statutes of limitations and deadlines that you don’t know about,” Ciolino said. “Understand that you are going to have to think about either associating or consulting with knowledgeable lawyers in the area and will need time to get up to speed with the law.”
He added: “You have to comply with court orders or the judge is going to be unhappy and the judge is going to report you to the office of disciplinary counsel.”
Be civil. “I have represented three lawyers who have gotten themselves into fights with other lawyers,” Ciolino recalled. “By fights I don’t mean squabbles, I mean fisticuffs, where they have wrestled one another in the courtroom, and another case where they have fought outside in the hall. Obviously those lawyers found themselves in the disciplinary process.”
Avoid representing friends and family members. “I have had a disproportionate number of clients in the disciplinary system who were there because they were trying to do a favor for their neighbor, their aunt, cousin, employer,” Ciolino said. “Lawyers tend to backburner these cases and tend to think of them as less important than other case. That gets you into trouble.”