Methods to ensure appropriate diligence and promptness in representing clients
With the new year, many people find themselves making resolutions to personally better themselves physically or mentally. But how can we, as attorneys, better our practice and representation of our clients? As an attorney in a small general practice firm, I am always looking for ways to become more efficient, to expand my knowledge of the law, and to have better business practices. However, it can be easy to be more preoccupied by urgent client matters and obtaining billable hours than in focusing on conceptual ideas or methods to enhance my practice. It is my hope that this article provides some practical advice concerning methods that you may not have thought of that can be adopted concerning one of the most important responsibilities of an attorney—ensuring that deadlines are met.
Illinois Rule of Professional Conduct 1.3 – Diligence
Rule 1.3 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct of 2010 provides, “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” Rules of Prof. Conduct, Rule 1.3. The comments to this Rule further elaborate:
“Perhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination. A client’s interests often can be adversely affected by the passage of time or the change of conditions; in extreme instances, as when a lawyer overlooks a statute of limitations, the client’s legal position may be destroyed. Even when the client’s interests are not affected in substance, however, unreasonable delay can cause a client needless anxiety and undermine confidence in the lawyer’s trustworthiness.”
Id. at Comment 3.
Meeting deadlines is more than filing a pleading within the statutorily or judicially prescribed date. It also includes monitoring responses of opposing counsel and clients and ensuring that research, obtaining evidence, interviewing witnesses, and other case management actions are performed within a timely manner. Many attorneys use an “all-in-one” software for managing files, calendaring, and billing such as Clio or MyCase. In my practice, I do not use these types of programs but rather use a combination of software and more traditional “hardcopy” methods to monitor files.
Software/hardcopy: The calendar
No matter if you use an online calendar through your smartphone or a physical calendar, a calendar is an attorney’s first line of defense in making sure that all deadlines are met and court appearances are attended. It is important that attorneys keep multiple calendars (or at least effectively “back up” online or computer-based calendars) as technology can fail and paper calendars can be lost. I use an individual pocket-sized calendar and the firm uses physical and electronic calendars. On the calendars are court appearances, meetings, and important filing deadlines.
Software: Microsoft Outlook
In addition to using an individual and firm calendar, I utilize the “tasks” section of Microsoft Outlook software for managing cases and remembering to take more trivial actions on files. Examples of these type of actions would be to draft correspondence, perform research, or prepare a settlement agreement. In Microsoft Outlook tasks, I can set due dates for these actions and set reminders that “pop up” on my computer screen. The due dates I give to these tasks are not absolute like the dates that I make sure are on my calendars. Rather, I use Microsoft Outlook for managing tasks that have more aspirational deadlines. Using the tasks feature, it is also easy to delete reminders when completed or to change the due date.
Hardcopy: The accordion file
I am a visual person. What I have found to work best for me in monitoring responses to letters, emails, proposals, and requests (basically, anything that I send out for which I am awaiting a response) is to use an accordion file with individual slots numbered 1-31 for each day of the month. I place a copy of the communication in the accordion file in the slot for the day that I want to review whether an action has occurred on it. At the beginning of each day, I go to my “tickler” accordion file and pull the documents for that day’s date. I like having a hardcopy of the document because it is much easier for me to recall what I’m following up on if I have a copy of the communication. I often go another step further and highlight on my tickler copy what specifically I am monitoring (such as “call the office to make an appointment to discuss in person” or “please provide me with this documentation”). A more general reminder of “response to 10-7-2017 correspondence?” without using this type of hardcopy tickler system would cause me to spend more time than necessary in following up on matters because I would likely not recall what the correspondence was about and I would have to pull the file to review.
No matter what type of case management system you use, it is necessary for all attorneys to ensure that deadlines are met and that files are being monitored appropriately. As we work to better our practices and ourselves this new year, implementing new procedures and improving current procedures not only helps our clients but betters our own personal well-being. Effective case management tailored to our areas of law and personal traits reduces stress caused by fears that an important deadline may be missed or the “ball may have been dropped” on moving a file.
Although the foregoing techniques work for me, they are certainly not exhaustive and may not be the best for everyone. What are strategies that you use in your practice? Feel free to share your case management methods in the comments below the online version of this article.