Managing non-lawyer employees

 In Georgia State Bar Grievances, Legal Malpractice

Managing non-lawyer employees is a critical task that lawyers often overlook. Unfortunately, overlooking such a critical task leads to malpractice complaints and Bar grievances all too often. When complaints and grievances arise, some lawyers try to direct blame on their non-lawyer employees.  However, the simple fact is, as a lawyer, you are the captain of the ship and responsible for everything your employees do, or don’t do. Here are three places where this topic is mentioned in the Bar Rules, plus some tips for better managing your staff to avoid issues like the one mentioned above.

Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct 5.3 outlines lawyer responsibilities regarding non-lawyer staff associated with the firm. Lawyers are expected to have reasonable policies and procedures in place to ensure that staff conform to the Rules. Lawyers need to supervise the staff, monitor activity, and implement corrective action when necessary. The same holds true with new attorneys as well.

Non-lawyer supervision is also discussed in Formal Advisory Opinion 21 as well as Formal Advisory Opinion 00-2. FAO 21 offers guidelines for what the non-lawyer staff can and can’t do, where FAO 00-2 specifically states that a non-lawyer can’t prepare correspondence that threatens legal action or provides legal advice. Both warn lawyers not to “assist in the unauthorized practice of law.” It’s permissible for the non-lawyer to draft documents, correspondence, or pleadings, of course, so long as the signature is the lawyer’s … and the lawyer has reviewed it.

Employee Management Tips

Here are some additional tips to help lawyers avoid problems:

  • Don’t allow anyone to sign your name on any document other than on a transmittal letter.
  • Make sure clients, judges, etc. know each employee’s status (i.e., “Law Clerk,” “Paralegal” in signature line).
  • Create an employee handbook with policies and procedures. The ABA offers a publication on handbooks for $13, or call the Georgia Bar Law Practice Management Program at (800) 334-6865. Written policies and procedures not only help guide employees when you are not available for a question, but they also bring continuity to the firm when someone is absent.
  • Train new hires on the policies, even if they have prior experience at another firm. Support staff can develop bad habits at former employers, which can haunt you if not addressed.
  • If there is a questionable action, correct it immediately, and share the reason why with the whole team.
  • Set guidelines for communicating confidential information outside of the firm, and also within publicly accessed space at your firm. This includes something as innocent as checking in at a confidential client site on a social media app, or mentioning client information in the reception area.
  • Self-assess through a Law Practice Management Audit. Do it yourself (the ABA has guidelines), or hire a neutral third party. The money spent is well worth it to prevent problems, and your malpractice insurance carrier may offer a premium discount.

Final thoughts

At a minimum, all supervising attorneys in the firm need to review all legal documents, demands, or advice, and then sign their own documents. Make sure that employees know the limits of their authority, and can differentiate between legal advice and non-legal advice . Set up a lunch-n-learn meeting to discuss the firm’s policies and guidelines. Document any questions and maintain a living document and FAQ. Review quarterly or as issues arise. Build a culture where employees are comfortable reporting potential issues to their supervising attorneys. As long as the mistake doesn’t demonstrate deception or ill-intent, use the situation as a learning experience for the staff, and move on.

[This is a 2017 update of prior post on this subject.]
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