Ethics Counsel on www.OKbar.org

Six New Year Resolutions for 2012

By Travis Pickens

1. Reread the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct and Comments (There are 57 rules. Covering one set a week is about right.) The rules are short, the comments longer, but neither too long to delay this important task. And, you need to read the book, because there will not be a movie.

2. Read the Opinions Issued by the Supreme Court (and the occasional Courts of Appeal opinions), regarding interpretation and application of the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct. Nothing brings the rules into focus like reading cases with lawyers in actual situations. The Oklahoma Supreme Court is the final arbiter and much can be learned from their analysis, the tone of their opinions and the level of discipline they impose. This is serious business.

3. Treat Ethics Like You Do the Areas of Law You Practice for Money. You cannot hope to comply with the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct simply by “feel.” Instead, treat your professional responsibilities as a full-fledged part of your everyday practice. Know it like you do the areas of law you practice for money. A good first step is to accept all of these resolutions, and to appoint an in-house ethics expert. Everyone should know the rules, but you need someone to supervise and to propose changes in office policy or procedure as necessary.

4. Develop a Succession Plan for Your Law Office or Law Department, selecting a lawyer or lawyers to step in for you and notify and protect your client(s), in case of your incapacity or death. Failing to plan for the succession of your law practice creates as much chaos as failing to do estate planning. This will be addressed in more detail in future journals, but two steps are paramount: incorporating this plan into your engagement agreement and relationship with current clients, and developing a plan and set of instructions for the lawyers that will step in for you.

5. Write the Perfect Fee Agreement(s) for Your Practice. We spend so much time serving others that we fail to serve ourselves, and that is a big mistake. A fee agreement is not just about money, it’s about good client communication and may be the best defense to a bar complaint. There are no advantages to not having a written fee agreement in every matter.

6. Create a Great Set of Explanatory Materials for Your Clients. They may be in electronic, paper or audio/visual form, covering everything from office hours, to your policies for return calls and emails, to the routine matters and court procedures of your areas of law. Like the fee agreement, this is good client communication and can be a handy document to have in the event a grievance is filed. Plus, it saves tens of hours each year. Many grievances are filed each year after a client’s expectations have been frustrated, wrongly or rightly. This is a great way to avoid, and defeat if necessary, ungrounded grievances.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Dec.10, 2011 -- Volume 82, No. 33.

Travis Pickens is the OBA Ethics Counsel. He can be reached at ethics@okbar.org