History credits the ancient Babylonians for starting the tradition of New Year's resolutions. The resolutions were designed to curry favor with the gods for the upcoming year. The tradition was adopted by Julius Caesar and the Romans and carried forward for centuries.
Lawyers, too, turn the page at New Year's Day. Billable hours start at zero. We examine trial calendars, business plans, hiring needs, and even times when we might be able to take vacations.
New Year's Day is also the perfect time to make ethics resolutions. Making ethics resolutions is an easy way to make you a better lawyer. Fortunately, many potential resolutions are easy to implement. Here are three good resolutions to consider.
First, resolve to improve the beginning of the lawyer-client relationship and refine your engagement letters. Fee agreements are covered by Maryland Rule 19-301.5. While Maryland does not require written retainers in all cases, resolve to use a written retainer in all new matters. A well-written letter clearly explains to the client the basis for your fee and the type of fee. State if the fee is contingent upon the outcome of the case, a flat fee, or billed by the hour.
Show the client how you calculate the fee and how you expect to be paid. Tell the client if the retainer is to be billed against or held till the conclusion of the matter. Advise the client if the retainer must be replenished if the amount in trust falls below a certain threshold. Explicitly state how costs are to be billed. Will you be advancing costs, or must the client pay them directly? Let the client know that you will send statements monthly, if that is your practice.
Remember, clients expect to pay a reasonable bill for your services. It's your responsibility to explain how you will be paid. No client wants to pay a bill that cannot be understood. By avoiding fee surprises, you'll keep your clients and the ethics gods happy.
A second resolution can be modernizing the management of your IOLTA account. Everyone understands the basic tenet of "don't take client money." Almost everyone has some knowledge of how an IOLTA account is supposed to function. But, surprisingly few know how to actually run an IOLTA account as required by Maryland Rules 19-400 through 19-413.
Often, lawyers are shocked at the record-keeping requirements. Fortunately, there are many resources available. In my experience, the best resource is an accounting software system designed for law firms.
I can't endorse any one in particular; however, My Case, Clio and other similar systems are designed to meet IOLTA record-keeping requirements. With each transaction that is recorded, a general and client-specific ledger is also created and/or updated. Client balances are automatically tracked. And, your monthly reconciliation — yes, you have to do this every month — is completed with a simple click of the mouse. Voila, complete IOLTA compliance all in one. This will surely keep the ethics gods happy.
Third, resolve to return all calls and messages within 24 business hours. An examination of the reports from the Attorney Grievance Commission reveals many complaints result from poor communication between lawyers and clients. Maryland Rule 19-301.4 requires prompt communication with clients about case events as well as a prompt response to client requests for information.
Experience teaches us that poor communication is often a precursor to an unhappy client. While it's unreasonable to expect that every client will be happy with the outcome of a matter, clients who receive regular communication are less likely to be surprised and less likely to file a complaint.
As we turn the page and enter 2023, make your offerings, and don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
Goodell DeVries defends various professionals in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia, including lawyers and law firms. Many of these cases are ethics matters involving Bar Counsel. If you have questions about the above or are a Maryland lawyer facing discipline, please contact us at EthicsHelp@gdldlaw.com.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Record on January 4, 2023.