Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
I’ve written about warning signs that a potential new client may be a train wreck waiting to happen to your law practice. If you pay attention to such warnings, then you may find yourself wondering just how to turn clients away without creating offense. That’s just what one of my clients struggled with recently. Here are my thoughts and from other attorneys, too.
How NOT to Turn Clients Away
Attorneys have a variety of ways that they handle potentially undesirable clients. Here are 3 methods that I do NOT recommend using to decline the representation.
1. Don’t: Just quote a high retainer
Some lawyers suggest that you require a very high retainer or high hourly rate, which will probably scare the client away. However, what will you do if they pull out their credit card, ready to pay your high fees? At least you’ll get paid handsomely for dealing with a difficult client, say those folks. We’ve all dealt with difficult clients before at standard or even discounted rates, so this would be an improvement.
I think there are already enough stressful aspects to the practice of law without taking on clients that your gut tells you to avoid. You may wind up with demanding and unreasonable clients, who now have a high expectation of getting what they want because they are “paying through the nose” for it. Those “Grade C and D” clients tend to take up more of your time, leaving less time to render excellent service to the “Grade A” clients that you want more of. Your stress and irritation also negatively affect how you deal with everyone else, including those at home. On top of all that, some difficult clients will never be satisfied and are more likely to file a grievance.
But what if you really need the money this month? Should you go for the higher rate and just bear with that unpleasant personality? Jerry Tidwell Jr., a family law practitioner in McKinney, Texas, gave some good advice in a Facebook discussion group. He said,
“While I am not saying you have to like or be friends with your clients, I do think you have to empathize with their circumstance in order to adequately or zealously represent [them]. I don’t think empathy can come from thinking of clients as just paychecks….In that transaction there will never be honest or frank discussions, and always be distrust in both client and attorney. All are best served if attorneys turned away fees that gave them an uncomfortable feeling.”
2. Don’t: Make up a conflict
Claiming a conflict might discourage their interest in your services, but it also might raise suspicion and lead to more questions. More importantly, it involves lying, which I do not advocate. Rule 8.4 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
3. Don’t: Disregard the risk of offense
Some lawyers say that we need to get beyond trying to be nice, because that’s what often causes us to wind up with undesirable clients in the first place. That perspective assumes that you have to choose between being be considerate and holding a boundary. You can stand firm with utmost kindness.
When your gut is already telling you that the client could be trouble, in this age of social media, an offended potential client might damage your reputation by venting to the world. I would even suggest that the abruptness of some lawyers has given our profession a bad name, making things more difficult for all of us. We need to remember that most clients come to us because they have a stressful situation and need our help, even though they themselves may not be very admirable in the way they deal with their suspicions and fears during their interactions with us. Turn clients away with grace to avoid creating additional discomfort for them or yourself.
How to Gracefully Hold a Boundary
First remember that the main thing the client wants is a solution to their problem. They actually want someone who will be comfortable working with their personality and their problem, and who can get them the best results possible. Chances are that if you aren’t comfortable, they aren’t really either. If you know others who would like to handle their matter, turn clients away with a referral to someone else. You are being of ultimate service to both attorney and client in making such a referral.
Elizabeth Stanley Pagel, a family law attorney in Humble, Texas says it this way:
“I appreciate you coming in to see me today, but I don’t think I would be the best attorney to represent you. I’d be happy to give you some names of other attorneys in the area who might be a better fit for you.”
Some attorneys make reference to their schedules, which won’t allow them to take “this kind of case.” That is true because you won’t allow your schedule to be derailed by a low fee case or the undue attention that a demanding, overly needy or deceitful client will likely require, even if your main focus will be on networking and marketing for good new clients. Others may reference some aspect of the matter that another attorney may have more experience in or more familiarity with the local rules or judges.
I, myself, occasionally receive calls from potential clients that don’t feel like a good fit because (i) I think they would clash with my style, (ii) they want a lot of exceptions to my preferred schedule, (iii) they would require a lot of extra work on my part, or (iv) they need expertise outside my wheelhouse of talents. I refer them to other lawyer-coaches because I know I can do a better job for clients that I look forward to helping. I truly want them to have the right fit. By expressing my care and concern for their interests, I’m able to turn away clients without giving offense or creating negative repercussions.
When you convey that you have their best interests in mind, clients are likely to appreciate your integrity and respect you for directing them elsewhere, instead of just taking their money. Some lawyers have actually received good referrals from clients they turned away! Just remember to do your CYA by sending a non-engagement letter or email reminding them of potential statutes of limitations, and wishing them luck in their endeavors.
I would love to receive your input. If you have successfully turned potential clients away (or wish that you had), I invite you to share your experience and advice below in the comments.
This post was adapted from an article by the author originally published in the April 24, 2014 issue of the Solo Practice University Blog.
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
“Duh! Tell me something I don’t already know,” you might have said to yourself when you read this headline about lawyer time management. I’m sure you already have some kind of list on your desk, on your computer, or on your mobile device right now. And yet, I frequently find myself coaching lawyers about creating and reviewing lists to improve lawyer time management and reduce the overwhelm of modern law practice.
There are many different kinds of lists with different functions and different ways to manage them. This post will include a “list of lists” and a brief description of their benefits or functionality. Check out David Allen’s, best-selling book Getting Things Done and his website of the same name for more elaboration on some of these ideas. I also invite you to share your suggested additions to this list in the comments below.
To Do Lists
If your desk has a stack of papers on it, you are using that as a to do list. It’s not very effective and probably contains some ticking time bombs within it. We all have more to do than we can accomplish in a day, and probably more than we can remember that we are supposed to do. Even though your list may be frighteningly long, get it out of your head, out of that paper stack, and into writing. You’ll have fewer deadlines and promises slip through the cracks. Once you get used to the potential overwhelm of a long list, you’ll actually feel less stress knowing that you haven’t forgotten something.
Because your to do list is too long, you need a priority list. At the end of the day (or first thing in the morning) make a list of the three most important things for you to accomplish tomorrow. That priority list will help you stay on track when a myriad of less important tasks sing their siren song of distraction. Don’t choose more than three priorities, because feeling successful each day helps you sustain your energy. Some unexpected new priority will almost always pop up, negatively impacting lawyer time management. If you actually do complete your top three items, you can create a new priority list. Alternatively, you can reward yourself by just going home early for once.
Project Next Action List
Upon examination, you may find that many items on your to do list have multiple steps for completion. David Allen points out that those are the projects that you never seem to check off. To get unstuck, break each of your projects down into their component parts, and identify the next action for each project. You can then choose from your next action lists when you create your priority list.
The fastest way to get something off your desk is to delegate it to someone else. When your to do list is too long, review it carefully for any projects or parts of projects that you can delegate to someone else. When I go over a long to do list with a client, we almost always find several things that can be delegated to someone else, at least in their initial stages. Editing and polishing are often easier than getting started.
Assigned Task List
Once you delegate tasks to others, you need to keep track of whether the work gets done on a timely basis. Outlook and Gmail allow you to assign tasks and set due dates. They can also send you a notification when the assignee marks the task completed. Free project management software like Asana or Trello can help everyone on the team keep apprised of the status of each element of the project.
Checklists for Lawyer Time Management.
In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande cites studies demonstrating that, even when performing familiar tasks, professionals that use checklists make fewer errors. There’s a reason why the FAA requires pilots with thousands of hours of flying experience to use a checklist before takeoff. In addition to helping you be more efficient, a checklist for a recurring undertaking allows you to more easily delegate it to someone else. You can also use the checklist to review the status of that assigned project.
Many of the documents you create may actually contain “stealth lists” that can remind you of all the tasks that need to be finished to complete the project. When you review a table of contents, an index, or a closing memorandum, you may notice that it contains a list of all of the smaller parts that need to be completed for the whole project to be accomplished. Start by creating that document first so that you can use it as your checklist.
Someday Maybe List
Capture the bright ideas that come to you while you’re in the shower, taking a walk or daydreaming. You might not ever get around to implementing them, but you don’t want to lose the ideas. If you have something on your to do list that has remained there for many months, perhaps you are really not that committed to it. Unclutter your to do list by moving that item to the “someday maybe” list.
“Waiting For” List
How often have you asked a client for information, to produce a document, or to sign and return something, only to have your request disappear into a black hole? Perhaps you closed a transaction a month ago, but you still haven’t yet received the recorded instruments from the County Clerk’s office. By keeping a list of the things you’re waiting for, you can avoid a mad dash at the last minute or a malpractice claim for failing to follow up.
Pick and choose what works for you from among these suggestions for improving lawyer time management. Don’t let list-making become an excuse for postponing action. Make sure your lists ultimately make your practice more efficient, instead of making it even more complex.
This post was adapted from an article by the author originally published in the October 26, 2014 issue of the Solo Practice University Blog.
“There just are not enough hours in the day to do everything myself! I want to improve my work-life balance by delegating tasks, but no one is available. I keep reading and hearing about virtual paralegals and virtual assistants as affordable options, but I wonder: Where can I find virtual support which meets the needs of my law practice?”
Solo and small firm attorneys often share these same thoughts. For both groups, virtual paralegal or virtual assistant support is often the perfect solution provided you find the assistant who matches your needs. The first step is deciding what task(s) you want to delegate. That list will grow quickly if you could find the right person. Your next move will be checking out the following sources to identify the names of virtual paralegals or virtual assistants who have experience in your practice area.
Attorney Referrals. Word-of-mouth referrals from another attorney are often the best way to quickly locate reliable virtual support if you are under a deadline crunch. A referral adds immediate credibility and gives you confidence as you make this paradigm shift. You probably know at least one other attorney who has used a freelance, temp, or virtual paralegal. Don’t forget the contract research attorney you used last year. There is a strong possibility that he has worked with a virtual paralegal who has proven to be trustworthy and reliable.
Social Media. There is no doubt about it. Social media is here to stay. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are great sources for virtual paralegal referrals. Most virtual paralegals or virtual assistants utilize social media to build their businesses. Monitor a virtual paralegal’s tweets and posts for a few weeks to observe the level of professionalism and knowledge. Talk to attorneys and paralegals and let them know what you need. They will be more than happy to make suggestions. Try these search terms: virtual paralegal, paralegal services, virtual assistant, virtual support. You can also search the Twitter hashtag #virtualparalegals.
Internet Search Engines. Google and Bing search engines often bring different names to the top of the search results. Consider the search term “virtual paralegal blog”. Many virtual paralegals maintain their own websites and blogs, particularly those who have chosen the virtual path as their full-time employment. Blogs are particularly helpful in identifying writing skills and analytical thinking abilities.
Paralegal Professional Associations. A truly professional virtual paralegal will maintain a membership in one or more paralegal professional associations to stay abreast of changes in the legal industry. Check with your local or state paralegal association, or contact the following national associations to find a paralegal in your practice area or jurisdiction who has shown an interest in working virtually. Be aware that some paralegals offer services in this manner on a full-time basis, while some paralegals are merely trying to supplement their income. The latter group is likely to be available only for evening and weekend assignments.
Virtual Assistant Organizations. There are several virtual assistant organizations which will be happy to help you in your search. Although these organizations are more general in nature, some of their members focus on legal support services for attorneys.
Virtual Paralegals and Virtual Assistants. Most virtual paralegals and virtual assistants are consummate professionals. They know you are most likely to be happy if you find the right person. If the paralegal or assistant you are interviewing by phone does not seem to be the right fit, ask her if she knows someone who has a stronger skill set in the particular practice area you need. Last week, I readily admitted to an attorney that I had no experience with class action litigations, and I am happy to make referrals under those circumstances.
Attorney Coaches and Legal Staffing Recruiters. As the concept of virtual paralegals and virtual assistants has become more accepted by attorneys, those professionals who coach and mentor attorneys have become quicker to suggest this viable solution. Ask your coach, mentor or local legal staffing professional if they personally know a virtual professional who could help you. Once again, personal referrals go a long way in establishing a firm foundation for a virtual relationship.
A paradigm shift to virtual paralegal or administrative support does not have to be occur “cold turkey”. Test the waters. Identify one project or case. Decide on one candidate. Give it a trial run. Assess the pros and cons. Refine the process. Change the candidate if needed. You’ll never know unless you try it. Many attorneys have a great experience, and they stay with the same virtual paralegal for years. As the trust level grows, the number of cases, tasks and projects you trust to your virtual paralegal will grow. Before you know it, a virtual paralegal has become your right hand, and you will probably have never even met him or her in person.
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
Is running your law practice growing to more than you can handle, but maybe not enough for full-time help? As a prudent business person, perhaps you aren’t ready to make the commitment to hire more staff or to lease additional space to accommodate them. If you find yourself working too many long hours just to keep up, and doing work that you should be delegating, maybe it’s time to experiment with a virtual paralegal or virtual administrative assistant. Virtual workers can permit you to flexibly expand and contract your office staff as your needs fluctuate on a project by project basis.
Confidentiality and Security
Some lawyers worry about confidentiality and security when they can’t look over the shoulder of an employee. Cathy Ribble, owner of Digital Paralegal Services, LLC, says her firm has training concerning confidentiality and security. When an assignment is completed, any printed documents are shredded, returned to the lawyer, or shipped to a third party at the lawyer’s direction. They use password protected, secure internet network connections and their electronic devices are password protected. “I avoid open forums for calendar and document collaboration tools published for the general internet public. There are many secure, encrypted and password-protected alternatives for collaboration,” says Ribble.
Andrea Cannavina, CEO of Legal Typist, Inc., emphasizes that selecting the right technology and the right people are important elements of protecting clients. Most of their digital assistants have over 10 years of experience in a traditional law firm setting. Most such organizations work with independent contractors, so make sure subcontractors are required to enter into confidentiality agreements. Subcontractors for Legal Typist “have to separately initial a confidentiality clause in the [independent contractor] agreement,” says Cannavina.
Range of Services
Virtual legal assistants can handle just about everything your traditional assistant does. I use a virtual assistant in my business, and she even brings me coffee sometimes. (She’s local and usually comes into my office about once a week, stopping by Starbucks on the way.) Ribble describes the virtual services she offers by saying, “I find myself providing the same paralegal support I provided while working in a traditional law firm.” She rarely meets lawyers face to face.
Here are some examples of the work that specialized virtual legal assistants and virtual paralegals may handle: transcription of dictation or handwritten notes; initial draft transcriptions of pleadings, motions, letters, blog posts, stipulations and interviews; revisions to the foregoing; case and deadline management; document review and organization; pleading preparation, review local court rules, electronic court filings, electronic and mail service of document copies; assistance with legal briefs (citation review, editing, table of authorities, table of contents, binding, printing and/or digital formats); coordination of service of process; billing assistance; internet research and investigation; document production, bates numbering and other discovery tasks; and preparation of hearing notebooks. Some assistants will communicate directly with your clients via telephone or email. Others only interact with the attorney’s office.
Cannavina’s company focuses on digital dictation, but that’s not as limiting as it may sound. “Our clients don’t just use us for documents – think of dictation like speaking your needs – we do calendaring, opening new electronic case files, adding contacts and such – mostly for our clients who also use Clio,” explains Cannavina.
Does your virtual assistant or paralegal need to work in the same jurisdiction where you practice? They don’t have licensure requirements, so they aren’t legally limited to any particular jurisdiction. Legal Typist works nationwide, but they limit their practice to the U.S. for security reasons. They keep all their processes and technology on U.S. soil. While being in the same jurisdiction is helpful, Ribble believes “practice area trumps jurisdiction. A well-trained experienced paralegal can use basic practice area skills to research a new jurisdiction’s requirements.”
Delivery of Documents and Information
Depending on the type of services provided, virtual workers may accept automated telephone dictation, web upload of text and audio files, email, overnight shipment of documents, and even regular U.S. mail. Some services handle only digital documents and don’t do any courthouse or electronic filings. Virtual assistants and paralegals may also work with your online law practice management software, which can enhance your ability to track the progress of projects.
Although the hourly rate paid to virtual paralegals and digital assistants usually exceeds the hourly rate of similarly skilled employees, the law firm may actually experience a cost savings. As every virtual service provider emphasizes, the lawyer pays only for actual time worked, and does not have to pay for overtime, vacation time, sick time, coffee breaks, training or professional development expenses, personal phone call time, payroll taxes, health insurance or retirement benefits. The attorney is also spared the cost of providing an office, furniture, computer, software and equipment for the worker. There are no repair, maintenance, insurance or property tax costs for those items, either.
In general, virtual paralegal rates range between $30 and $65 per hour. Some virtual paralegals charge 25% to 30% of the lawyer’s hourly rate. Some have volume discounts. Prices for virtual legal transcription services are measured in many different formats. The price may be quoted based on the number of words, pages or minutes of recorded audio or even a flat monthly fee. The rate may be influenced by the volume of work contracted for, the clarity of the recording, the number of speakers per recording, or the requested turnaround time.
Conflicts of Interest
Lawyers may worry about how they will manage conflict checking when they use a virtual service. Conflicts haven’t come up for Digital Paralegal Services, due mainly to the different geographical locations from which the work comes. Cannavina reports “in the 10+ years I’ve been a VA, I have not encountered one conflict.” Both companies have a policy of requiring subcontractors to stop work immediately and report to them if they encounter a familiar name.
Nevertheless, all parties should be vigilant about protecting against conflicts of interest. “The rules are no different for a Virtual Paralegal and Virtual Administrative Assistant than for a paralegal, legal secretary or anyone else working under the supervision of an attorney in the brick and mortar setting,” says Vicki Voisin, the self-styled “Paralegal Mentor.” She frequently writes and speaks on ethical issues for paralegals.
Rule 5.3 of the ABA Model Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct requires that lawyers with supervisory authority over nonlawyers make “reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer.” Voisin recommends that all types of virtual assistants “maintain a detailed conflicts log that includes the name of the firm and attorney they’re working with, the name of the case and the parties to the action, and any other parties involved.” They should also be aware of “personal conflicts they might have: relatives/friends on the opposing side, stock or business interests that might be a conflict, cases they worked on in previous employment, etc.” says Voisin.
Ribble says she prefers to work with paralegals certified by the National Association of Legal Assistants because they “must meet certain ethics requirements within their CLE credits, so the attorney is assured of a baseline understanding of [the attorney’s ethical requirements].” There are a number of other certifying organizations for paralegals and legal assistants.
If you are now ready to dip your toe into the virtual pool, you can think of the guidance in this article as your virtual floaties. Happy swimming!
© 2011 Debra L. Bruce. Adapted from an article by the author originally published in the September 2011 issue of the Texas Bar Journal.