A well-documented file provides a clear picture of the work you’ve done for a client. This can be invaluable in defending 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.
Put it in Writing
There is a good reason airline pilots maintain detailed flight logs. 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.
Lawyers are less diligent than pilots in this respect. But those attorneys who make documentation a priority have safer practices and happier clients.
Alta Pro Practice Pointers
- More than CYA. Documentation helps defend allegations 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.
- 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.
- Have a written plan of action. Put in writing how you intend to achieve the client’s objectives. Summarize your preliminary research and case evaluation. Outline the anticipated steps going forward. Prepare a timeline. These documents are fluid. They will change as the matter progresses. The point is to create a blueprint for success in the case.
- Prepare 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.
- 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.
- Document your settlement authority and other instructions. 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 by documenting your file.
- Develop a forms library. Fillable templates make status reports, progress notes and client memos easy to produce.
- Send the client a letter documenting the outcome. Explain how and when the resolution was reached and what it means for the client. Be sure to include copies of orders and dispositive documents. Provide follow-up as needed.
- 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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