Low Tech Fundamentals of Running a Law Office

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By on December 30, 2014 2:00 pm Leave your thoughts

 

 

Burton's Head Shot

 

I recently completed a fairly ambitious article setting out my efforts to create an Internet presence. http://hunterlawfirm.net/social-media-annual-review-marketing-for-the-small-firm-lawyer/  It occurred to me that my technology works because I have the underlying “bones” or foundation for a well-run office.

This article should be helpful for a new, or a struggling, lawyer. It should be helpful to an established lawyer if that lawyer has been “going through the motions”,  or mindlessly doing things “the old way”, or who just wants to share ideas. .

It is critical, in the daily hustle, to step back and consider our goals and how we can achieve those goals.

Here are some suggestions, in no particular order. Call (304 472-7477) or write hunterjb@hunterlawfirm.net if you have any questions.

 

  1. Communication is a key, so here are two tips:
    1. When you have to write someone and be able to convince the Court you reached them  or at least tried in good faith, send it regular mail, and certified mail – return receipt, and attach a “certificate of service”. A “certificate of service” is a written statement, signed by the lawyer, of the type of mail he used, the recipient, the address, and the date. Even if the recipient refuses to sign for the certified mail (as they do approximately half the time), the fact the regular mail does NOT come back, and that you tried both methods, will almost always satisfy the court, at least as to your good faith. And, since people are often reluctant to sign the return receipt card, it greatly increases the likelihood your message will be read.
    2. Use e-mail thoughtfully. Lawyers may not communicate directly with a represented party. That is unethical. So, while not listing the opposing party in the address line, I find that e-mail is still a very effective method to communicate, with no additional cost for copying your own client, your paralegal, and blind copying your other staff, receptionist, billing, timekeeping, so they know what is happening in the case. You can include your expert, your co-counsel,  the guardian ad litem (lawyer appointed to represent an infant or person under a “legal disability”), the clerk of the court, and, in juvenile abuse and neglect cases, “child protective services”. It is especially helpful that your “expert” be kept informed of developments, and that your client’s own insurance representatives know the status of a claim. By keeping everyone in the loop, you can move a case forward, “tickle” those who don’t have their own “tickler” system, and foster better communication. I “copy to” others even when we use “snail mail”, believing the small extra cost is worth it.
  2. Follow up your communications: I mentioned a “tickler system” above. Space prevents a discussion of powerful practice management applications. Mine is “self-made” and harks back to my “Appleworks” suite of spreadsheet, database, task, contacts and calendar which I devised in 1981!
  3. Here is the rule: NOTHING GOES OUT WITHOUT HAVING A REVIEW DATE, 2, 3, or 4 weeks out.
  4. AND, one or two people in the office is/are tasked with reviewing the dailing “suspense file” at the beginning of EVERY work day. This simple rule, ignored by many of my colleagues, is a key to staying on top of things.
  5. Want a “ ‘70’s” way to do this? Just get a plastic bankers box. Put 31 hanging folders into it. Number the folders 1-31. Put your file copy of the days mailings into the appropriate slot, 2,3, or 4 weeks away. Then, 14, 21, or 28 days later, your staff will pull the document(s) in the folder(s) and act on it?
    1. Most will be filed (if an appropriate reply or action has happened) or an automatic follow-up date created.
    2. Staff should be trained that if 2-3 follow ups have been “suspensed” and no reply received, to alert the attorney.
    3. I usually persist by referencing and attaching the multiple requests we have made.
    4. The recipient and I know that these long strings of requests may eventually reach a judge or reviewing authority. So, better to document, document, and document your efforts to get a reply.
    5. I try never to make a threat that I am not prepared to  carry out, and, as for threats, remember that just getting a letter from a lawyer can be a threat. There is no need to be accusatory or heavy handed.
  6. When I told my former USAF JAG office secretary, Cathy, in 1992, that I still followed the system that she taught me in 1972, she laughed and said, “Oh, we have used a computerized calendaring program for years! Now we do too, but whatever “suspense system” you use, must be reliable.
  7. Another great tip: CHECKLISTS!
    1. As you will learn if you read “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande, every system benefits by meticulously thought out checklists. We have checklists for :
      1. Hearings;
      2. Phone conferences;
      3. Meetings with clients:
      4. Mediation;
      5. File opening;
      6. File maintenance;
      7. File closing;
      8. Personal injury claims management;
      9. Appeals, and;
      10. Many more.
  8. Forms: We have dozens of forms:
    1. Intake forms;
    2. Telephone intake;
    3. Organizing the facts in a case. They are the three “legs” of a solid stool:
      1. Object list worksheets;
      2. “Burt’s top ten lists” of concerns, goals, and questions.
      3. The timeline.
    4. Family Court Forms:
      1. Financial affidavits;
      2. Blank parenting plans;
      3. Application for service of the Bureau of Child Support Enforcement (B.C.S.E.);
      4. Caretaking Functions worksheets;
      5. Equitable Distribution worksheets;
      6. Proposed Equitable Distribution Spreadsheets (prepared by the lawyer using Microsoft Excel,  with the client, and submitted to the court and the other party before mediation.)
  9. And we have dozens of handouts for clients (It helps to have 250 blog articles “in the can”.) My stuff isn’t “copy-writed”. Any colleague can “borrow” them.
    1. Hunter’s letter to new clients, explaining who he is and how he  and his staff interact with clients;
    2. Legal Checklist: a listing of items that most people must attend to, powers of attorney, medical powers of attorney, wills, insurance limits review, potential legal controversies. My years as a Preventive Law Officer in the USAF JAG Corp. helped my approach to preventing legal problems.
    3. “How to Organize the Facts in Your Case”;
    4. How to avoid problems in your family law, personal injury, and civil dispute case relative to “social media”;
    5. “The Law of Equitable Distribution in WV”;
    6. The factors considered by the court in determining alimony;
    7. What NOT to do during the process of your divorce;
    8. What to do and not to do in the process of your personal injury claim or civil suit.
    9. Specific warnings regarding Social Media; and,
    10. Many, many others.
  10. My personal tips:
    1. Dress appropriately. There are days for blue jeans, but hearings and mediation require coat and tie.
    2. I come to work by 7:00 a.m. on most mornings, and have a two hour head start on most of my competitors;
    3. I have several capable staff members to delegate  work to.
    4. I try NOT to bawl someone out mistakes while taking on new challenges. My better employees are not afraid of me, or of taking risks, not should they be.
    5. I keep my staff supplied with the best technology we can afford.
    6. I reward them for getting our clients to write favorable reviews. It is not natural for them to ask for a review.
    7. I show great flexibility for my staffs’ personal schedules and obligations. They appreciate that and are committed to covering for each other.
    8. I have a “secretaries’ fund”, a percentage of our gross receipts, that goes into a fund, distributed at the end of the year. It is a decent retirement plan and something most small firms do not have.
    9. We have always provided our staff medical insurance.
    10. We treat each other like family. I am not a patient man, but I am told I am a good teacher, and some even imply I am a good boss.
  11. Finally, the members of this firm are driven to serve and makes lives better. We also want to make to make money, so our goals are:
    1. Serve the clients and their families;
    2. Maintain a sterling reputation;
    3. Trust that the clients and the money will flow from numbers 1. and 2.
    4. Have methods, checklists, systems, facilities, and equipment, and procedures to let us accomplish these goals.

This post was written by Burton Hunter

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