Why Practice Management Technology Should be Used to Avoid Ethical Pitfalls

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You Can’t Spell Ethics Without “TECH”

Efficiency, promptness, accuracy, and professionalism.  These are a few commonplace terms in any successful small law firm. While these terms are constants, the standards of competency in fulfilling these concepts have changed due to the technological advances that have been created.

The progression of technology cannot be ignored, especially as a solo or small law firm. As technology expands, so do the ethical standards and expectations in lawyering.[1] Of course, technology presents its own layer of additional ethical considerations, but ignorance of technology altogether is no longer a viable option. A lawyer without proper technological assistance is disregarding ethical responsibilities. Legal ethics in an age of exponential technological advancement can seem like ever-moving targets. With this well in mind, it is crucial to explore why, with the help of technology, managing a practice is essential to consistently hitting those targets.

Industry Acknowledgment

The American Bar Association’s Commission on Ethics 20/20 unequivocally outlined the expectation that lawyers utilize technology to ensure ethical compliance: “[T]echnology has irrevocably changed and continues to alter the practice of law in fundamental ways. . . . Lawyers must understand technology in order to provide clients with the competent and cost-effective services that they expect and deserve.”[2]  The Commission outlined the tremendous shifts within legal practice because of technological booms.[3]  Its work culminated in a 2012 addition to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct (“ABA Rules”) explicitly noting that, in order to maintain competence as an attorney, a lawyer should “keep abreast of . . . the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”[4]

Implicit in the ABA’s explicit highlight of technological awareness is the notion that a lawyer should implement reasonable technologies that make their product cost-effective, efficient, and of the highest standard.  One of the simplest ways to meet that standard, avoiding simple ethical violations and malpractice-causing slip-ups, is through implementation of practice management technology.

Using Practice Management Technology to Meet Ethical Standards and Avoid Malpractice

Implementation of a legal practice management software can eliminate a world of pitfalls in client interaction, organization, and accuracy.  We discuss a few of these in turn, however, implementation and proper use of practice management software can help attorneys such as solos and small law firms avoid a multitude of potential issues not explicitly discussed here.

Promptness

A key theme of the ABA Rules pertaining to interactions with clients is “promptness”.  This is especially clear in Rule 1.4, in which a lawyer must “promptly inform the client or any decision or circumstance” pertinent to their matter.[5]  A lawyer must also “promptly comply with reasonable requests for information” from their client.[6]  Use of “prompt” would indicate that information relating to every matter in a lawyer’s practice must be readily available and in a usable form so that a client is not waiting for updates, counsel, or communication in any form.  With a well-organized case management system such as Smokeball, a lawyer can promptly respond with accurate information from the office, home, or on the go.  Interestingly, the ABA Rules make use of the term “reasonable” throughout; however, the instances above do not cage the term “prompt” in such a fashion.  The lawyer must be prompt no matter what, and quick access to accurate up-to-date information will absolutely help the lawyer meet that standard.

Conflicts

Many ethical dilemmas when practicing law come from conflicts of interest and the failure to realize them. ABA Rule 1.7 makes it clear that any lawyer must be keenly aware of potential conflicts at all times.[7]  When a lawyer implements a practice management software to keep careful record of the entirety of his or her practice, checking for conflicts among contacts in that database, it facilitates more efficient processes, accuracy, and comprehensiveness. Indeed, relying on a memory simply will not cut it in today’s complex legal market. Case management software contains a detailed historical record of interactions with contacts related to a lawyer’s practice that arguably cannot be imitated without technology.

Deadlines

Similar to conflicts, deadlines cast a layer of consideration by an attorney over all that they do.  A lawyer must be extremely sensitive to each and every deadline, no matter how small, on each and every matter they’ve taken on.  Indeed, missing deadlines is the first “trap” noted by the ABA in its guidance on Malpractice Prevention.[8]  Most practice management software has several built-in features to avoid this pitfall, including ways to manage tasks and calendars, and mechanisms for docketing and tracking important contractual and statutory dates.  With proper implementation, lawyers with a case management software can avoid missing deadlines with redundancy and fail-safes.[9]

Again, there are innumerable additional benefits to managing a practice with the assistance of technology.  A few more are of particular note: the transparency of work, tasks, and documents allowing for thorough oversight of staff and other attorneys; tracking capabilities for time and expenses to ensure accuracy of billing; and maximizing efficiency through automation capabilities.[10]  What’s more is that these simple (and almost obvious) benefits of case management software actually set lawyers up to avoid much more complex potential ethics and malpractice claims that may not be seen down the road.

Technological advances will not ignore the legal services industry, and thus, lawyers must begin to view their ethical duties with that in mind.  The target of ethical obligations will continue to move as tech advances propagate.  The important question becomes, “Am I fulfilling my ethical duties and avoiding potential claims against my firm even though I am not utilizing current tech resources?”  Today, if a lawyer is attempting to operate without practice management software, the answer is arguably “No.”

Smokeball can help your small law firm manage your cases through document automation, email and document a management, and essentially everything on that matter at your hands when you’re in the office, in the courtroom or at your home office.

[1] See Lynn Watson, At the Crossroads of Lawyering and Technology: Ethics, Jan. 2013, available at https://info.legalsolutions.thomsonreuters.com/signup/newsletters/practice-innovations/2013-jan/article6.aspx (“There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that technology is essential, and there is an expectation from peers and clients alike that attorneys will be able to make use of the latest tools that will help them be more efficient and better informed.”).
[2] ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20, Introduction and Overview, 3 (Aug. 2012)
[3] See id. at 4-5.
[4] ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Model Rule 1.1, comment [8].
[5] ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Model Rule 1.4(a)(1).
[6] ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Model Rule 1.4(a)(4).
[7] See ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Model Rule 1.7.
[8] The Top Ten Malpractice Traps and How to Avoid Them, American Bar Association, Desk Guide Legal Malpractice, pg. 52.
[9] See id. (stating that avoiding missed deadlines can be accomplished with “redundancy” within a firm calendaring system).
[10] See generally Helen Gunnarsson, Does Your Practice Need Practice Management Software?, 98:7 Illinois Bar Journal, 352, July 2010 (elaborating on the time-saving power of a transparent practice management software program).
February 28th, 2017|