Self-assessment tools make it easy to run your law practice ethically and effectively.
By Diana Reinhart
What happens when you sit down to take stock of your law firm’s operations? Do you know what questions to ask to determine if your systems for conflicts, billing, staffing, and other necessities are adequate?
More and more, a number of self-assessment tools are available to lawyers examining the management of their law practices. These tools—published by bar organizations, insurance carriers, and regulators—are widely available and ask the questions that point to whether a practice is running ethically and effectively.
“It’s like a road map that enables people to evaluate how they are doing and how they can improve,” said Susan Fortney, a professor at the Texas A&M University School of Law. “By doing so you can get your house in order, and it will enable you to sleep at night.”
In October 2017, a subcommittee of the Colorado Supreme Court Advisory Committee launched an online program with 10 self-assessments in core practice areas ranging from client communications and trust account management to wellness and inclusivity. A group of 50 attorneys identified practice risks and crafted questions to ask lawyers whether they have systems in place to address them. The program comes with continuing legal education credit.
“It’s a checklist to help law firms ensure that they have an ethical infrastructure,” said James Coyle, attorney regulation counsel to the Colorado Supreme Court. “Even if just one lawyer in the state improves, that means 100 people are happy.”
The self-assessments may be particularly helpful to solo practitioners and small practices that do not have the same resources as a large firm, Coyle said. They are voluntary in Colorado, where regulators see them as a way to help lawyers raise the bar, increase client satisfaction, and avoid grievances.
The Washington State Bar Association was among the first to create a voluntary self-audit, and assessments are in the works in Illinois, where they will be mandatory in 2018 for lawyers without malpractice coverage.
Outside the United States, self-assessments can be found in Australian states and Canadian provinces. The efforts in Australia arose as a regulatory safeguard when New South Wales enacted legislation permitting law practices to become publicly listed companies without restrictions on non-lawyer ownership.
The rise in the creation of self-assessments is part of a proactive move by regulators toward preventing disciplinary problems rather than simply reacting to complaints, Fortney said. Their popularity stems in part from research showing that complaints drop when lawyers do the assessments.
“This is really a way of helping lawyers,” Fortney said. “The whole point of this is to examine and improve.”
Meanwhile, professional liability insurance carriers have been offering self-assessments for decades as part of risk management efforts. The Texas Lawyers’ Insurance Exchange, or TLIE, first created one in 1993 to help lawyers identify factors that can lead to malpractice claims and may not be so obvious, said Jett Hanna, TLIE senior vice president. Among other areas, the TLIE self-audit draws attention to the nuances of conflicts systems, client relations, and managing staff.
“The practice of law takes a lot of time, in and of itself, without doing something administrative like this, but it really can help you to provide quality legal services,” Hanna said. “It ends up being good for business.”TBJ
Where can you find self-assessments?
administers the Grievance Referral Program for the State Bar of Texas and runs a private counseling practice in Austin called Embark Counseling.