Avoid Malpractice this Holiday Season

This holiday season, like all those before, will involve family dinners, parties with friends, days spent away from the office, and the possibility of committing legal malpractice. There are two general risks. The first are those that come from going to holiday parties. The second issue that comes up deals with taking time off, whether it’s a week or a day. Both scenarios can pose risks to the unwary, but with a little thinking ahead they are completely avoidable.

Dodge Casual Legal Questions

There are several ethical risks associated with casual legal questions, whether they’re asked over dinner or at a party. The biggest concern, of course, is that you will answer the question and get the answer wrong. Whether it’s from a lack of the necessary facts, a misunderstanding of the law, or the number of glasses of eggnog you’ve had, it doesn’t matter. There is still a risk that the person asking the question will rely on your answer to their detriment.

A less likely but equally avoidable risk is that someone will leave a conversation thinking they have a lawyer. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the lawyer is not of the same belief.

The easy to solution to these problems is to be clear and polite. You aren’t that person’s lawyer. You don’t give out legal advice over dinner. It would be to your own detriment as well as the inquirer’s to offer some blind advice. And you would like some more sweet potato pie please.

Prepare for Time out of the Office

If you have a secretary or virtual receptionist, this won’t be as big of an issue. But even if you have someone answering the phones, it’s important to set client expectations for your availability. Comment 4 to ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4 specifically says that “[a] lawyer should promptly respond to or acknowledge client communications.”

Set an E-mail Auto-Responder

The auto-responder is a handy tool, and ubiquitous amongst e-mail providers. Simply turn it on when you leave the office for the holiday and you’re set. Randall has discussed the do’s and dont’s of auto-responders before. But to summarize, keep it brief and to the point. Let people know if there is a number/person to call for emergencies. Also, let them know when you will return to the office.

Change Your Voicemail Message

I have clients that call a lot. They call on weekends, at night, in the early morning, and on holidays. I try to set the expectation with these clients that I will get back to them as soon as I can, but usually within a couple of business days. Changing your voicemail greeting ensures that all of your clients are on notice about your absence. Like the auto-responder, make sure to let people know when you are coming back.

Don’t Miss Deadlines

If you have deadlines in the coming weeks, make sure to check your local rules for deadlines. Some courts close early the day before holidays. Worse, I’ve experienced courts that closed early unannounced. If you are planning on filing something at the last minute (and isn’t that so often the case?) make sure the courthouse will be open. Also make sure the last minute is when you think it is. There is no sense rushing around like a crazy person to get a brief in by Friday if it isn’t due until Monday because of some holiday.

Aside from Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all fall during the week this year. That means a lot of court closures. It never hurts to double check on these things before heading out of town to enjoy some turducken.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/38446022@N00/3064088118/)(/small>

Legal Ethics

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