A well-documented case file provides a clear picture of the work you’ve done for a client, which can be invaluable if you have to defend yourself in a bar grievance or malpractice claim.
But documentation does more than just protect you. It expedites the case, facilitates teamwork and saves time and money. Below are some practice pointers for documenting your law cases.
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Documentation Tip #1: Read ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4 – Communication. A lawyer shall: (1) promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent, as defined in Rule 1.0(e), is required by these Rules; (2) reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished; (3) keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter; (4) promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.
Documentation Tip #2: Put it in Writing
There is a good reason airline pilots maintain flight checklists. It keeps them on track and minimizes the risk that routine tasks will be overlooked. And if something does go wrong, it provides a contemporaneous record of what happened and why.
Documentation Tip #3: It’s More Than CYA
Documentation can help rebut an allegation that you made a mistake or did substandard work – but it does much more than that. A good paper trail lets team members open the file and quickly get up to speed. It eases transitions to successor counsel. It aids in insurance audits and internal reviews. And it frees you from having to rely on your memory alone.
Documentation Tip #4: Start Early
Begin building your file at the initial interview. The first documents should be a completed intake form and a signed engagement letter. You should also document the scope of the representation, the client’s instructions and the desired outcome, if these aren’t covered in the letter. Confirm that you’ve screened for conflicts of interest.
Documentation Tip #5: Use Status Reports
Document your progress. Write file notes explaining setbacks and unexpected obstacles. If your scope of representation changes, prepare a new engagement agreement or append a memo – signed by the client – to the existing agreement.
Documentation Tip #6: Keep an Activity Log
Do this even in cases where you don’t bill by the hour. A detailed log shows what you did for your client and how long it took. This could help support a fee request or defend a complaint.
Documentation Tip #7: Document Settlement Authority
Clients who sue for malpractice often allege they weren’t consulted, didn’t give authority or were coerced into a decision. Avoid these scenarios by sending confirmatory letters and documenting your file.
Documentation Tip #8: Go Paperless
If you use digital documentation, make sure all documents are accessible and printable. Maintain hard copies of documents that have legal significance.
Documentation Tip #9: Send Client Letters
Explain how and when the resolution was reached and what it means for the client. Include copies of orders and dispositive documents. Follow-up as needed.
Documentation Tip #10: Use Discretion
Don’t use your file to vent or make inappropriate statements. Assume the client, successor counsel, or a jury will read it someday.
The Bottom Line: A documented file will benefit you, your firm and your client.
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