Law Firm Oversight: Your Ethical Obligations

Law firm oversight: it’s something we’ve focused on a lot in recent months on the MyCase blog. The reason we’ve spent so much time sharing this information is because it’s an important building block to a successful law firm.

For starters, you can’t run an efficient, profitable law firm in the absence of the knowledge gleaned from effective law firm oversight. After all, the more you know about your firm’s operations and processes, the more equipped you’ll be to make informed decisions that will set your firm up for future success.

But law firm oversight isn’t just a smart business decision, it’s also an ethical obligation. As a managing attorney at your firm, you have an ethical obligation to ensure that you’re adequately supervising the attorneys and staff at your firm.

The ethics of law firm oversight

While ethical obligations regarding law firm oversight vary from one jurisdiction to the next, an ABA ethics opinion from 2014 offers lots of great guidance. In Formal Opinion 467, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility considered the ethical obligations of supervisory prosecuting attorneys when it comes to ensuring that their reports comply with the ethical rules of conduct. Although the focus of the opinion is on prosecutors, throughout the opinion, the Committee offered lots of useful guidance for all lawyers on how to effectively manage employees that are helpful both when it comes to ensuring compliance with ethical obligations and in terms of law firm oversight more generally.

At the outset, the Committee explained that according to the Model Rules, managerial lawyers have an obligation to “make reasonable efforts to ensure that [their organization] has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that all lawyers in the [organization] conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct,”  and lawyers with supervisory responsibilities “must make reasonable efforts to ensure that the other lawyer conforms to the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

Then the Committee turned to the steps that managerial and supervisory lawyers should take to ensure that the lawyers whom they supervise comply with their ethical obligations. Notably, those same procedures also ensure proper law firm oversight so let’s take a look at some of the recommendations from the opinion.

Establish office-wide policies

First, the Committee addressed the importance of office-wide policies that provide the necessary instruction and supervision that lawyers and staff need in order to meet their ethical obligations and perform their job functions effectively.

Among other things, managing attorneys must:

“(E)stablish internal policies and procedures…(that) address confidentiality obligations, how to detect and resolve conflicts of interest,…(the) dates by which actions must be taken in pending matters,… and ways to…ensure that inexperienced lawyers are properly supervised.”

In other words, as Heidi Alexander explained in a recent post, run your law firm like a business. Put office-wide procedures in place that provide you with insight into your employees’ day-to-day activities and the data you need to make informed business decisions.

Provide guidance through training and supervision

Next, ensure that your firm’s policies and procedures are memorialized in a manual provided to all new employees. And then provide attorneys and staff with the necessary training that they need to do their job – and do it well. The better training they receive, the better their job performance will be. As explained in the opinion:

“(T)rain incoming lawyers regardless of their previous experience…and (make) office policies and procedures available to all lawyers in hard copy or
electronically retrievable format may help ensure compliance..Training sessions should be offered as frequently as needed to update lawyers and
nonlawyers on relevant subjects…”

Notably, Jared Correia touched on the importance of employee training in a recent blog post, and advised that creating a new employee onboarding program is essential for all law firms. By training new hires and establishing law firm procedures and expectations up front, you lay the groundwork for long term success and prevent a host of problems in the long run.

Encourage open communication

And last, but not least, encourage open lines of communication in your firm through internal reporting procedures and other channels. In the context of ensuring employees comply with ethical obligations, an open-door policy can prove vital, as the Committee explained:

“Large offices with several layers of hierarchy may need to establish a formal committee to coordinate and direct the internal reporting of misconduct, (while) (s)upervising prosecutors in these smaller offices may make ‘reasonable efforts’ by simply, for example, adopting an open-door policy for reporting misconduct or assigning a specific person in the office to hear such reports.”

Notably, an open door policy can prove to be incredibly beneficial in all aspects of law firm management. As Heidi Alexander explained in a recent blog post, “(o)pen door policies that allow staff to reach you for questions or to address issues can help ensure that you receive information that you need to conduct oversight and help prevent minor issues from becoming major problems.”

Use legal software for law firm oversight

In other words, effective law firm oversight not only helps to ensure ethical compliance in your firm, but also ensures that your firm is running smoothly. The good news is that in 2019 it’s easier than ever to establish the necessary procedures and obtain the internal data that you need to ensure that your firm is running as efficiently and profitably as possible.

In addition to the suggestions outlined in this post regarding establishing policies and procedures up front, choosing the right legal software can make all the difference. With the right software, tracking the ins and outs of the daily activities occurring at your law firm is easier than you’d imagine. To learn more about how software tools can assist with law firm oversight, make sure to check out this blog post.

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