Tips for Making Sure You Comply with Your Ethical Obligations

Attorneys are generally aware of the ethical obligations they have toward their clients and they take them seriously. However, law firms don’t simply assume that their lawyers are complying with their ethical obligations and they take steps to assist them whenever ethical issues arise, and, in some cases, help minimize the potential harm facing the client, attorney, and firm.

A law firm’s efforts in helping its attorneys and partners comply with ethical obligations can help with avoiding or at least minimizing a legal malpractice claim or bar grievance. They also probably want to be advised as soon as possible of any potential issues that might lead to claims or grievances so that may try and take corrective action. Learning about the problem when actually served with a lawsuit can produce complications for the company’s risk management efforts.

By education their attorneys and other employees, the law firms’ goals are to reduce the possibility of any ethical mishaps and ensure that when mistakes do occur, despite good faith efforts, the problems are not all compounded because those involved were afraid to ask for help. We’re going to talk about some tips for law firms who want to educate their employees about their ethical obligations and to encourage them to always act in accordance with those obligations.

What Are the Available Resources?

Firms sometimes encourage and even sponsor continuing legal education courses in order to educate their lawyers on recent developments in law, especially if they pertain to lawyers’ ethical and professional duties. Since continuing legal education is mandatory in many states, firms can help make it easier for lawyers to satisfy state bar requirements. Many firms sponsor CLE courses from reputable organizations or obtain credit for their lawyers who participate in seminars within the firm.

Firms can also take into consideration issues of ethics compliance that can be explained to nonattorney employees, especially in the realm of changing technologies. For example, an employee may not be aware of the dangers of phishing e-mails and how to spot one, but if they fall for one, they could expose their firm to loss or risk. Cyberattacks on law firms are getting increasingly sophisticated and that means that risks can sometimes come from less obvious sources and they can be harder to identify. Thus, any risk management presentations or e-mails with risk management tips can help employees stay informed on the latest risks.

Such education sessions, whether they are through CLE, internal e-mails, or other sources, can go a long way toward enhancing law firms’ reputations, especially in the eyes of their insurance companies. In some cases, insurers will even reduce premiums or provide perks to firms who show they take their ethical and educational obligations seriously.

Are Employees Encouraged to Disclose Wrongdoings?

As already mentioned, it can be more challenging for a firm to defend against an ethical violation or malpractice issues if the first time they learn about it is when it becomes a bar grievance, malpractice lawsuit, or other potential exposure. Creating a safe space for employees to identify and self-report any errors while still allowing firms to enforce their standards of conduct can be a difficult balance.

The firm and the employee have just as much interest in identifying and mitigating errors, as it can sometimes be too late to do so when the issue has already developed into a malpractice suit. Additionally, when any suspected or observed mistakes are reported to law firms’ general counsel, they may be able to benefit from the in-house attorney-client privilege between lawyers and their firms.

When an employee fails to report a potential mistake to the appropriate personnel within the law firm, there may be other serious, but less obvious risks. For example, a firm’s insurance coverage could be jeopardized, as law firms usually have to report to their insurers of any possible circumstances that could give rise to a claim.

Most law firms try to create an environment that promotes disclosure and encourages their lawyers to ask for help whenever any ethical or professional liability issues arise. In order to combat any reluctance that lawyers might have toward reporting for fear of repercussions, law firms will usually emphasize that the primary goal in encouraging disclosure is minimizing the firms’ risks, not punishing employees for the mistakes or complications that inevitably occur in the practice of law.

Time for a Break?

It’s well known that the practice of law can contribute to burnout, which in turn can lead to preventable mistakes. While it may seem that a vacation is generally impossible given the client demands and deadlines, it’s well-documented that taking time off is very important. Before taking any time off, though, lawyers can ensure that their clients’ needs are being met while they are away.

Having other employees share responsibility to account for those who are out of the office can also assist the firm in risk prevention, as employees can advise each other and potentially even identify mistakes that might have gone unnoticed. There have also been situations where a corporation or a law firm discovered an employee’s wrongdoing once that employee took time off and was replaced by another person who discovered that something wasn’t right.

Everything discussed so far is meant to help lawyers and other staff members provide effective services to their clients while also complying with their ethical obligations. Addressing issues as a team effort is always helpful to lawyers, the rest of the staff, and to their clients.