Google docs glitch – are you being careful?

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that a glitch in Google Docs had incorrectly locked out users due to a false positive for inappropriate content.  The article also highlighted a concern with free Google services that we’ve talked about before.  Google continually mines for data in all of its products and there is an on-going concern about privacy because of it.  The glitch in Google Docs causes numerous users to receive messages that their content had violated the terms of service and they were therefore locked out.

What? Are we going to warn you about data privacy again?  Well, not this time.  This time we’d like to remind you to read the terms of service.  Is the software/service you are using sweeping for, other otherwise collecting, data or content?  No, we aren’t suggesting that they have an actual person sitting in a room reading all of your content – although under the terms of service they probably could.  But are they collecting data or content that should be confidential?  And if they are, do you know what it is they are collecting or monitoring?

In fact,  most if not all practice management software providers have portions of their terms of service that give them access to your information for servicing issues, but be a diligent consumer and be sure you understand all the terms of service.  If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact your provider to ask questions.  Yes, all lawyers handle confidential information but if you have clients who are subject to governmental privacy provisions (for example, clients with security clearance, HIPPA requirements, etc.) you will want to read the fine print.  Although this is an emerging area of law, the ethical rules require you to take reasonable measures to safeguard your client’s information — and certainly reading the terms of service is a reasonable measure.

Getting paid. Who doesn’t want to get paid?!?


After reading a good article on tips for getting paid, particularly if you are a solo or small firm lawyer, we wanted to (1) share and then (2) ruminate a bit on the practical realities.

The author, Gary Ross, big-firm lawyer turned solo turned small firm lawyer, had mostly great practical advice (there were a couple of tips that just wouldn’t work in Arizona).   The best of his suggestions were:

  • It’s better to not have a client than to work for a client and not get paid, in essence to work for free;
  • Impose good billing policies at the outset, because if you give clients a “deal” when you are building your practice it will be hard to change those billing terms later;
  • It’s usually not worth it to chase down clients who don’t pay;
  • Hourly fees are the most fair way for lawyers to get paid since you never know what may happen in the future;
  • Or if you really want to charge a flat fee, put a cap on the number of hours it buys the client.

Now, here’s the rumination part; we talk to a lot of newer lawyers who are building their practices while coping with law school debt and other financial constraints – maybe a family to support, rent to pay, an office to furnish, etc.  It’s hard to turn down a client or not to be sympathetic to some one with a need for the services of a lawyer.  So, should you discipline yourself to turn away clients who cannot give you an advance fee?  Or should you agree to some kind of payment schedule to make that financial burden more bearable?

We can’t make that decision for you, but here are a few suggestions (yes, we could spend pages and pages talking about billing and getting paid, but it’s Friday afternoon and who wants to read all of that?):

  • be realistic about whether you can afford to take payments over time.  If you choose to do so, be certain that there is a clear expectation of how much each payment will be, when it will be due, and that the final payment is due long before you anticipate the matter will conclude.  Even the happiest of clients will be less happy to have to continue to pay you after the case is settled, won or is otherwise over;
  • be diligent about billing.  Yes, it takes time.  But if you are a solo with no staff, there’s no one to do it but you.  If you aren’t diligent about billing when you should, your client may take a hint from you and be less diligent about paying on the due date;
  • be vigilant about missed payments, whether they are missed installment payments or the failure to replenish an advance fee when required.  If you don’t receive a payment, promptly have the hard conversation with your client about their duty to pay, and remind them of the consequences (that you have already put in your fee agreement or engagement letter), what does that tell your slow- or non-paying client?
  • consider low-bono work.  We’ve already talked about this in another blog post.  If you are financially able to take one or more cases on a reduced fee, then be deliberate about it – don’t reduce your fee because you haven’t gotten paid and you are now writing off unpaid balance after unpaid balance; and
  • your time and training are worth something.  Don’t feel apologetic for charging legal fees.  Of course, you want them to be reasonable and commensurate with the factors listed in the ethical rules; but giving a client a “bargain” at the outset may make it difficult to charge a more realistic fee in the future if they hire you for other matters.

This is the tip of the iceberg – yes, we could do an entire series of posts on this; and who knows, maybe we will. But for now, here’s some food for thought.

Want to talk about it further?  AZ Bar members, can call us at Practice 2.0, 602-340-7332 for a phone or in-person consultation.

 

Developing a Business Plan

If you are thinking about starting a law firm or if you already have a law firm, do you have a business plan? Having a business plan will enable you to have a base document that helps guide your operations.
There are some key components of a good business plan.
Executive Summary – This is the basic summary of your law firm.  Who is your market? What is your practice area? Where will you be located?
Financial Analysis and Plan – In this section, consider the financial aspects of your law firm.  What will you charge? What kinds of fees will you use? If you are doing flat fee work, consider what you will charge for a specific task. If you are working at an hourly rate, how much will you charge per hour? How do these rates compare to other lawyers? What expenditures will you need to make? What do things cost? What is your month by month budget?
Management Plan – How will your business entity be structured? How will your practice be structured? What is the work flow?
Marketing Plan – How will you get clients? Consider the responsibilities unique to lawyers.
Creating a business plan is discussed in more detail in our new (free member benefit) resource, Going Solo in Arizona available here. You can also always contact Practice 2.0 for guidance in structuring your law firm and considering how to build your practice to run it as a business.

For questions on running your law firm as a business, risk management,
Practice 2.0 at 602-340-7332
for a free, confidential consultation.

Best Practices for Sole Practices and Small Firms

At the second annual Solo/Small Firm Institute, lawyers Briana Chua, Danny Mazza, Ayensa Millan, and Emily Taylor – all solo/small firm lawyers – shared their insights on a variety of issues.

In no particular order, among the tips those in attendance learned, we heard:

  • That you have to “do everything” and “be everywhere” in terms of marketing and business development.  For some that is a divide-and-conquer strategy, with each lawyer focusing on something different. But for solos, it may be picking the two or three best strategies and then making them a priority.
  • Accounting and business practices can take an inordinate amount of time, particularly at the beginning. All agreed that they needed systems and procedures to free them up to practice law.
  • Each of them have added staff to address these administrative issues, but only after starting with support from their family – not financial support, administrative support.  Having a mother, sister or other family member helping out at the beginning was more common than one might have thought.
  • Work-life balance is something that these lawyers struggle with and there is, again, no single answer. What was common is that unplugging totally is more the exception than the rule, even during vacation.
  • And, speaking of vacation – it is possible for solo/small firm lawyers to take vacation, although some have not done so for long periods of time.

What’s the take-aways from this session?  Solo/small practice isn’t for the faint-of-heart.  It takes hard work, dedication, no small amount of imagination and innovation, and as with most things, a little help from your friends and family.

Disaster Preparedness for Law Firms

With the recent devastation in the southern United States in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, we are reminded of the need for a disaster plan.  In addition to considering how to best keep yourself and your family safe, you should also give some thought to protecting your practice and the clients who rely on you.  What would happen to your law firm if there was no power? Or, what if a disaster struck while you were at work? What would you do if your computers sustained water damage and became inoperable?

Document Storage – Where are your documents stored? If you keep paper files, how would you keep them safe? If you store your documents electronically, consider:

  • Are your documents backed up? How can you access your backups?
  • What is your back-up plan if you lose electricity?
  • What is your backup plan if your office is flooded?

Business Continuity – Consider how you will keep your practice going in the event that you cannot access your office or are short staffed.

  • What staff roles are absolutely vital to continue operations, what employees are needed?
  • What is the chain of command?
  • Are employees cross-trained so that they can step in and fill another job function?
  • How will time-off and pay be handled for employees?

Taking Shelter or Evacuating – A disaster could strike while you are at work.

  • What is your evacuation route?
  • If you cannot escape, where could you shelter?

Contact Information – If the power is out, you are going to need a way to access contact information.  Reports coming out of Florida indicate that the power might be out for at least several more days.  Gas shortages have made running a generator difficult. Do you have contact information readily accessible for:

  • Clients
  • Employees
  • Courts
  • Federal, state, and local officials
  • Utilities such as telephone, water, gas, and electric companies
  • Neighbors?

Insurance Coverage – Do you have insurance that will pay for some of the costs and expenses that you will incur before your law firm can go back to being operational?

Our thoughts are with everyone suffering the impacts of the hurricanes. We hope that you found this post helpful and if you have any suggestions about additional things to consider, please Tweet us @AZPractice2_0!

Lawyers and Well-Being

A new report by a national task force on lawyer well-being has been issued.  You may find the report here. A number of national groups were included, with representatives from the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Law Practice Division, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (the lawyer regulations folks), the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (the ethics lawyers) and many others.

It is no surprise that as a general principle, to be a good lawyer you need to be healthy in body and spirit.  No, this does not mean that if you do not hit the gym five times a week you cannot be a good lawyer.  It doesn’t mean that you have to run marathons, or even half-marathons.  It does mean, however, that we need to be in a condition that will allow us to use our best efforts for our clients.

It is also, by now, no surprise that lawyers are at the top of the range of those experiencing chronic stress, high rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and high rates of suicide.  The report includes specific recommendations for various stakeholders including judges, regulators, employers and Bar associations as well as general recommendations.

The bottom line is that we lawyers need to take better care of ourselves and each other.  We need to stop finger-pointing and stigmatizing those who are suffering and turn our attention to ways in which to assist ourselves and our colleagues.  What do you need to be well?  Do you need to eat better, drink less, exercise more?  Do you need to better manage your stress, get sober or address your anxiety or depression?

There is no easy answer, but this report – on the heels of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundations’s study of mental health and substance abuse among lawyers – should be a wake-up call for all of us to take a moment (or more than a moment) to self-evaluate and decide what we need to increase our own well-being, both physical and mental; it’s also a good time to look around and see if you have a colleague who may need assistance.

Resources and information, as well as confidential peer support, are available from the State Bar’s Member Assistance Program.

 

 

Yes, but is it compatible?

New technology, new equipment, new apps or software . . . they are bright and shiny – they do bigger and better things than before.  But before you take the plunge stop, take a deep breath and ask yourself . . . .will it work with what I already have and want to keep?

Learning this lesson the hard way can be painful.  Take, for example, the transition to new equipment – let’s say phones – only to learn that they do not work with your existing operating system, switchboard or other hardware.  Learning that the system you’ve just bought works only on Windows 10, and not the version you have been using and hadn’t intended to update quite yet, can stop progress in its tracks.  Or dealing with another person, agency or company whose software works only on an older operating system and either very poorly and not at all on yours can be daunting.

Having an IT professional you can call upon to resolve these issues can save a lot of heartache and frustration.  Do you need a full-time IT person on your staff?  For most lawyers the answers is no.  But you should have in your contacts (or for old-schoolers, Rolodex) one or more IT consultants you have already vetted and know you can afford.

A word to the wise.  Start looking for that person now before you hit a roadblock.  Ask around – someone you know probably has that information for you.  If you find someone great, we’d love to hear about them at Practice 2.0.  We don’t make referrals, but we do compile helpful information to make your work life a little easier.  You can send that information to us at practice2.0@azbar.org.

 

 

Thinking about office sharing?

If you are in a solo practice and need some bricks and mortar space but don’t want to take on a full office, or the financial burden it brings, office sharing may be an option you wish to consider  Office sharing – usually with a joint receptionist and some joint equipment (think printers, copiers) – can be a frugal and expeditious solution.  Of course, if it was easy and fool-proof, there would be no need for any comment.  The fact that you are reading this opening paragraph therefore tells you that there are a number of considerations to address.  Here are some:

  • Be certain that your firm is distinct and separate.  This applies to signage and business cards/stationary; it also applies to your phone number – you should have one that is separate from any other lawyer or firm in that space, your email, your fax number (if you have one) . . . you get the picture.  A client or prospective client coming into the shared space should not be confused about who you are and that you are not associated with the other lawyers in the space.
  • Physical separation and security is also an issue in these arrangements.  It may seem obvious, but it is easy to forget.  Your office door, desk, and any physical file storage must be able to be locked so that you may restrict access.
  • Be sure to inform your clients that you are not associated with the other lawyers in the shared office.  You may do so during your consultation; it’s not a bad idea to have that disclaimer in your fee agreement or engagement letter.
  • Remember that communications with your client, or about your client’s matter, should be held in your office space – and remember to close the door.
  • Will using a shared receptionist create confidentiality or conflict issues? If you are sharing a receptionist do not assume that s/he understands the confidentiality requirements to which you are subject.  Even if this is an office-sharing arrangement that is tailored specifically to lawyers and you’ve been assured by the rental agent that staff is trained, keep in mind you are responsible for supervising your non-lawyer assistants.  Assume that the receptionist has been appropriately trained at your own risk; it doesn’t take long to have a conversation to assure yourself that the receptionist understands confidentiality.
    • If you are using a shared receptionist, it is a better practice to have them forward calls to your voice mail rather than actually recording a message.
    • If clients want to drop off documents, files or other information, how will you ensure that this information is not exposed to the other lawyers in the space or their clients in a shared waiting room.
  • What are the cybsersecurity provisions of the space?  If you are all using the same internet connection think about whether you need some professional IT assistance to make sure you have adequate security for your cyber-communications with your clients.  Perhaps you may wish to choose an office-share where you will have your own, unique internet connection.
  • In what kind of practices are the other lawyers in the suite  engaged?  Will there be a conflict created if your clients use a shared waiting room?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the issues that should be addressed before you make this commitment.  The lawyers at Practice 2.0 are happy to discuss with you your personal situation and assist you in identifying issues and crafting solutions.  Call Practice 2.0 at 602-340-7332.

Managing ourselves

As many return from summer vacation, or at least a long 4th of July weekend, we are again reflecting on self-care – this time in connection with maintaining a successful practice.  Have you yet taken time off this summer?  Are you planning on some kind of recreational break from your practice?  Why do we ask and why is it important?  There are hundreds of practice management applications – software galore – to help us.  Case management, document management, all kinds of task automation, mobile apps, installed software . . . the list is endless.  But what all of these products cannot do is manage us.

What are we talking about?  No, wait, don’t roll your eyes . . . let’s talk about lawyer wellness in terms of our practices.  Here’s our point – we can have all of the best equipment, resources – human and other – the best procedures and processes (OK, so we are being utopian), the best legal minds, and the best of intentions but none of them will work as well as they ought if we are worn out, either mentally or physically, or both.

Have you gone to the office when you are just dragging?  Does it seem like you are slogging your way through quicksand?  Or are you perhaps a bit cranky?  It’s Arizona and it’s summer and even if you are fortunate enough to live in or around Prescott, Flagstaff, or points north where the weather is more moderate, don’t we all remember those glorious summer vacations from our school days?  Is it time to take a vacation – even if it’s just a long weekend where you unplug and really relax?

Maybe a vacation isn’t the cure for what ails you.  Maybe it’s rethinking the volume of your practice.  Do you have too many clients?  Do you need additional human resources – either on staff or contract help?  Do you need to employ some of the time management suggestions we posted last week?  In the thick of the action it’s sometimes hard to consider these issues.  Many firms have official retreats to do strategic planning; even if your firm is small, or is just you, doing some strategic planning (what we in our family sometimes call “thinking deep thoughts”) is a worthwhile endeavor.

So here we are, suggesting that we each take a moment, a day, or a long weekend to think about what’s working for our practices and what isn’t; what we can change easily and quickly and what should be a long-term goal; whether we just need a little break at the beach, in the mountains, or wherever your person battery most easily charges, or whether we just need to make some changes to our day-to-day work practices.  Let’s take the time to manage ourselves.

 

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