August 16, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Attorney in Malpractice Case Must Raise Collectibility as Affirmative Defense

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Gallegos v. LeHouillier on Thursday, March 23, 2017.

Legal MalpracticeBurden of ProofCollectabilityAffirmative Defense.

Plaintiff Gallegos sued defendants LeHouillier, an attorney, and his law firm, LeHouillier & Associates, P.C. (collectively, LeHouillier), for legal malpractice. The jury found that LeHouillier had negligently breached his duty of professional care when handling an underlying medical malpractice case for Gallegos. The trial court placed the burden on Gallegos to prove that any judgment in the underlying case was collectable, and it ruled that Gallegos had provided sufficient evidence to prove that point, entering judgment in her favor.

On appeal, LeHouillier contended that the judgment must be reversed because collectibility is an element that a plaintiff must prove in a legal malpractice case, and Gallegos did not prove that any judgment that she would have received in the underlying malpractice case would have been collectible. Gallegos countered that the issue of collectibility is an affirmative defense and the court should have required LeHouillier to prove that the judgment was not collectible. The Court of Appeals determined that the record did not contain sufficient evidence that the judgment was collectible. In addition, the trial court erred when it placed the burden on Gallegos to prove that any judgment in the underlying medical malpractice case would have been collectible; it should have required LeHouillier (1) to raise the question of collectibility as an affirmative defense and (2) to prove that any judgment Gallegos would have received would not have been collectible.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Candor to the Tribunal and the Duty of Confidentiality: How to Broach This Ethical Pitfall

qtq80-uSztbKRule 3.3 of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not “make a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal or fail to correct a false statement of material fact or law previously made to the tribunal by the lawyer” or “fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel.” But what exactly does this mean in the everyday practice of attorneys in Colorado?

Suppose the lawyer faces a client who intends to give false testimony or who refuses to correct a misstatement. What is material? May or must the lawyer withdraw from representation? Must the lawyer take further remedial measures? What must the lawyer do in an ex parte situation? In sum, how must the lawyer balance his or her duties to the client (particularly the attorney-client privilege) and the tribunal?

The Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee addressed these questions in Formal Opinion 123, “Candor to the Tribunal and Remedial Issues in Civil Proceedings.” Opinion 123 requires the attorney to first remonstrate with the client. If that is unsuccessful, the attorney may be required to withdraw from representation. As a final measure, the attorney may make disclosure to the tribunal under certain circumstances. However, “the disclosure to remedy such a false statement must be limited to the extent reasonably necessary to achieve such ends and must be made in the manner that is the least harmful to the client while satisfying the commands of Colo. RPC 3.3.”

At noon on Tuesday, December 6, 2016, attorney Paul Gordon will delve into the intricacies involved with Colo. RPC 3.3 in a timely one-hour CLE. Mr. Gordon will bring his expertise in representing plaintiffs in malpractice claims against lawyers throughout the United States. Attendees will also receive a copy of Mr. Gordon’s chapter in Lawyers’ Professional Liability in Colorado with further discussion of the topic. Register here or by clicking the links below.

 

CLELogo

CLE Program: Lawyers’ Duty of Candor to the Tribunal and Remedial Measures in Civil Actions and Proceedings

This CLE presentation will occur on December 6, 2016, at the CBA-CLE offices (1900 Grant Street, Third Floor), from noon to 1 p.m. Register for the live program here or register for the webcast here. You may also call (303) 860-0608 to register.

Can’t make the live program? Order the homestudy here: MP3Video OnDemand.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Proof of “Case Within a Case” Not Required in All Legal Malpractice Actions

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Boulders at Escalante LLC v. Otten Johnson Robinson Neff & Ragonetti PC on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

Legal Malpractice—Negligence—Statute of Limitations —Legal or Proximate Causation—Case Within a Case.

Plaintiff is a real estate development company formed to develop townhomes in a subdivision in Durango. Defendant is a law firm that was hired to represent plaintiff in a lawsuit against it by its general contractor to foreclose the contractor’s mechanic’s lien. Defendant filed several compulsory counterclaims on behalf of plaintiff for breach of contract and negligence. Plaintiff was concerned the contractor would not be able to pay a judgment if plaintiff succeeded on the counterclaims and asked defendant to review the insurance policies it had obtained for the project to determine whether the policies would pay a judgment against the contractor.

In 2006, defendant told plaintiff there was $2 to $4 million of coverage to pay a judgment against the contractor. In 2009, after plaintiff had obtained new representation, plaintiff learned that the policies contained an exclusion precluding payment to plaintiff if it succeeded on its claims against the contractor. Plaintiff and the contractor eventually settled, dismissing the claims against each other with prejudice. No payments were made by either party.

In 2011, plaintiff filed this action, asserting defendant was negligent in incorrectly advising regarding the insurance coverage, leading to extensive losses, including legal fees and expenses in continuing the litigation. The jury found defendant was negligent and its negligence caused 82.5% of the damages suffered by plaintiff. Judgment entered for approximately $2.7 million, plus pre- and post-judgment interest.

On appeal, defendant argued the claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations set forth in CRS § 13-80-102. Defendant argued that plaintiff’s claim accrued no later than February 2009, when plaintiff learned defendant’s advice regarding insurance coverage might be wrong, and the action wasn’t filed until April 1, 2011. The Court of Appeals disagreed. A cause of action for negligence accrues on the date both the injury and its cause are known or should have been known to the plaintiff by the exercise of reasonable diligence. Under the circumstances here, the question of when plaintiff knew or should have known that the advice was incorrect and that it was injured by that advice was properly a question resolved by the jury.

Defendant argued that in a legal malpractice action based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove a case within a case; namely, that the claim underlying the malpractice action would have been successful but for the attorney’s negligence. The Court disagreed. Here, the claimed injury does not relate to the outcome of the underlying matter, and therefore plaintiff did not need to prove a case within a case.

Defendant challenged whether its negligence caused plaintiff’s damages. The Court determined that the evidence was sufficient to establish that plaintiff proved its malpractice claim for damages based on the legal expenses it incurred because of defendant’s incorrect advice. But for this advice, plaintiff would not have continued incurring legal expenses in an attempt to prove its counterclaims. However, plaintiff should not have recovered damages based on the business losses it sustained. As a matter of law, defendant’s advice regarding the insurance coverage was not the legal, or proximate, cause of plaintiff’s claimed business losses. Although defendant could have reasonably foreseen that plaintiff would make business decisions based on defendant’s advice, the actual harm plaintiff suffered because of those business decisions was not within the scope of the risk created by defendant’s negligence. The case was remanded for a new trial, limited to determining the amount of damages plaintiff incurred in continuing to pursue its counterclaims against the contractor after receiving incorrect advice from plaintiff.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

The Colorado Lawyer: Conflicts Check—Just Do It

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of The Colorado Lawyer. Reprinted with permission.

By J. Randolph Evans, Shari L. Klevens, and Lino S. LipinskyEvans-Klevens-Lipinsky


Authors’ Note
Readers’ comments and feedback on this series of “WhoopsLegal Practice Malpractice Prevention” articles are welcomed and appreciated. References in the articles to “safest courses to proceed,” “safest course,” or “best practices” are not intended to suggest that the Colorado Rules require such actions. Often, best practices and safest courses involve more than just complying with the Rules. In practice, compliance with the Rules can and should avoid a finding of discipline in response to a grievance or a finding of liability in response to a malpractice claim. However, because most claims and grievances are meritless, effective risk management in the modern law practice involves much more. Hence, best practices and safer courses of action do more; they help prevent and more quickly defeat meritless claims and grievances. Other than billing, there is virtually nothing that attorneys dread more than addressing potential conflicts of interest. After all, resolving conflicts issues requires and attorney to focus on why not to take on a new representation rather than how to get the business in the door. However, unidentified or unresolved conflict issues cost lawyers more—in both clients and money—than most attorrneys realize.


Legal publications are replete with articles about motions to disqualify, disciplinary cases, and legal malpractice claims based on an unidentified or unresolved conflict of interest. Even when successfully defended, conflict-based allegations cost lawyers time and money. When lawyers lose, the risks are serious. The attorney could be disqualified from representing the client, face discipline for violating the Rules of Professional Conduct, receive an unfavorable jury verdict, or be forced to pay punitive damages based on a finding of disloyalty. The Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge (PDJ) takes conflicts of interest violations very seriously.[1]

In addition, judges and juries may well disregard defenses to claims (such as the protections of independent professional judgment or “trial tactics”) based on a breach of the lawyer’s fundamental fiduciary duty of loyalty to the client. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world, the path of least resistance when a new client walks in the door is to get started on the case without performing even a rudimentary conflicts check. When it comes to conflicts, however, haste really does make waste.

Rule 1: Identify Conflicts Before Representation

Conflicts do not get better with time and cannot simply be undone. Once a conflict-laden representation begins, one cannot simply give back the confidences and secrets and forget it ever happened. When the attorney–client relationship attaches under a cloud of a potential or actual conflict of interest, there is no going back to the way things were before. For this reason, the attorney must identify and resolve conflicts of interest before the attorney–client relationship begins. It is one of those areas where an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound (if not a ton) of cure.

Rule 2: Grant No Exceptions

With conflicts, systems aimed at 100% compliance are critical. Inevitably, it is that one representation that escaped the system that creates the most problems. Typically, the reasons for operating outside the conflicts process for one representation (the client is too important, the case is too complicated, the attorney is too rushed) are the same reasons the conflict analysis was so important for that representation. Hence, the single most important part of conflicts analysis is compliance without exception.

The challenge, then, is to address conflicts as painlessly as possible. The easier and faster the system is, the more likely it will be that every lawyer will “run conflicts” on every representation.

One last point on the “no exceptions” rule bears emphasis. Every new representation—even if it does not involve a new client—should be screened for conflicts. Conflicts screening should be done each time a new party becomes involved as a plaintiff, defendant, lender, buyer, or seller. Also note that, although computers make conflicts screening much easier, they are no substitute in the final conflicts analysis for involving lawyers in the process. Effective conflicts procedures involve both.

Spotting Actual and Potential Conflicts

Attorneys in Colorado must comply with Rules 1.7 and 1.8 of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct, which govern conflicts. There are two kinds of conflicts: actual conflicts and potential conflicts. The distinctions between each are worth noting.

Actual Conflicts

An actual conflict means that the conflict cannot be waived by disclosure or consent; the attorney simply cannot accept the representation. One type of actual conflict is direct adversity, which occurs when the needs of one client are directly adverse to the needs of another client. For example, a law firm cannot represent both a plaintiff and a defendant in the same lawsuit (although it has been tried). Effective conflicts systems identify direct adversity conflicts and make it impossible to open a matter when they arise.

Potential Conflicts

A potential conflict means that there is some issue that must be addressed before a lawyer can accept the representation. Typically, the issue is some form of consent or waiver from either the new client, another client, or a former client.

There are two types of potential conflicts: successive representations and multiple representations. Although they are different, the waiver is largely the same—full disclosure and consent. In both situations, the attorney must provide full disclosure to all of their clients and obtain their written consent before taking on the representation.

Successive representation. Successive representation conflict rules involve potential conflicts between a current (or prospective) client and a former client. Under the conflict rules, a lawyer cannot represent a new client in a matter substantially related to the representation of a former client without the former client’s consent after full disclosure.

Although there are many cases defining “substantially related,” the essence is whether the lawyer learned (or could have learned) confidential information from the old client that could be used in the new representation for the new client. If the answer is no—the lawyer did not and could not have learned confidences and secrets that could now be used—then the lawyer should be able to accept the new representation. If the answer is yes (and lawyers should assume the answer is yes when in doubt), then the lawyer should provide full disclosure to the former client and acquire his or her consent in writing before taking on the new representation.

Multiple representation. Multiple representation conflict rules involve potential conflicts arising out of the representation of more than one client. Many lawyers overcomplicate the analysis; it is actually pretty straightforward. If there is more than one client, then the multiple representation rules should be applied.

In most situations, the potential conflict is easy to spot—there is more than one client listed on the new matter form, so the rules have to be applied. However, sometimes the conflict is not so apparent. These situations can arise out of probate litigation (representing the executor, estate, and heirs); securities litigation (representing both the corporation and the directors/officers); domestic litigation (representing the parents and the children); and bankruptcies (representing multiple creditors).

Whenever there is more than one client, the lawyer should ask (1) Are there things I might do differently if I represented only one of the clients? and (2) Could changes down the road create adversity between the clients? If the answer to both questions is no, then there may be no conflict. Depending on the circumstances, the attorney may be able to accept the representation without further investigation. If the answer to either question is yes, then there is a potential conflict that requires a more thorough analysis. This analysis involves determining whether the lawyer can adequately represent the interests of all of the clients. If the answer to this question is no, then there is an actual conflict.

A simple way to establish whether there is an actual conflict is to determine if the clients’ interests are linked in any way. In a contested divorce proceeding, for example, no lawyer could advance one spouse’s interests without impacting the interests of the other spouse. Therefore, the representation of a wife and husband in a contested divorce proceeding is not permissible with or without consent.

Conclusion

Conflicts do not have to be complicated. They just require practice discipline and proper analysis. Before the representation begins, get the names and run the conflicts. Adopt the mantra “Just Do It!”


Note

[1] See People v. Layton, No. 13PDJ036 (PDJ Sept. 25, 2013) (suspending an attorney in part due to violation of Colo. RPC 1.8(e), which prohibits an attorney from providing financial assistance to a client involved in pending litigation).

Randy Evans is an author, litigator, columnist and expert in the areas of professional liability, insurance, commercial litigation, entertainment, ethics, and lawyer’s law. He has authored and co-authored eight books, including: The Lawyer’s Handbook; Georgia Legal Malpractice Law; Climate Change And Insurance; Georgia Property and Liability Insurance Law; Appraisal In Property Damage Insurance Disputes; and California Legal Malpractice Law. He writes newspaper columns (the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the Recorder, and the Daily Report) and lectures around the world. He served as counsel to the Speakers of the 104th – 109th Congresses of the United States. He co-chairs the Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission. He serves on the Board of Governors of the State Bar of Georgia. He handles complex litigation throughout the world. He has been consistently rated as one of the Best Lawyers in America, Super Lawyer (District of Columbia and Georgia), Georgia’s Most Influential Attorneys, and Georgia’s Top Lawyers for Legal Leaders. Along with numerous other awards he has been named the “Complex Litigation Attorney of the Year in Georgia” by Corporate International Magazine, and Lawyer of the Year for Legal Malpractice Defense in Atlanta. He is AV rated by Martindale Hubble.

Shari Klevens is a partner in the Atlanta and Washington, D.C. offices of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. Shari represents lawyers and law firms in the defense of legal malpractice claims and advises and counsels lawyers concerning allegations of malpractice, ethical violations, and breaches of duty. In addition, Shari is the Chair of the McKenna’s Law Firm Defense and Risk Management Practice and is a frequent writer and lecturer on issues related to legal malpractice and ethics. Shari co-authored Georgia Legal Malpractice Law and California Legal Malpractice Law, which address the intricacies and nuances of Legal Malpractice law and issues that confront the new millennium lawyer. She also co-authored The Lawyer’s Handbook: Ethics Compliance and Claim Avoidance, which is an easy-to-use desk reference offering practical solutions to real problems in the modern law practice for every attorney throughout the United States.

Lino Lipinsky de Orlov is a litigation partner in the Denver office of McKenna Long & Aldridge, LLP.  He represents clients in all aspects of commercial litigation, mediation, arbitration, and appeals.  He has developed particular experience in complex business cases, particularly those involving creditor’s rights, real estate, trade secrets, and employment disputes.  Mr. Lipinsky also frequently speaks and writes on legal issues relating to technology, employment law, and ethics.   He is a member of the Colorado Bar Association’s Board of Governors and serves on the Board of the Colorado Judicial Institute.  He is a former President of the Faculty of Federal Advocates.  Among his honors, Chambers USA has recognized Mr. Lipinsky as one of Colorado’s leading general commercial litigators, and he has been included in The Best Lawyers in America.  He received his A.B. degree, magna cum laude, from Brown University and his J.D. degree from New York University School of Law, where he was a member of the New York University Law Review.

 

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

Frederick Skillern: Real Estate Case Law — Lawyers and Professional Liability

Editor’s note: This is Part 14 of a series of posts in which Denver-area real estate attorney Frederick Skillern provides summaries of case law pertinent to real estate practitioners (click here for previous posts). These updates originally appeared as materials for the 32nd Annual Real Estate Symposium in July 2014.

frederick-b-skillernBy Frederick B. Skillern

Gibbons v. Ludlow
Colorado Supreme Court, July 1, 2013
2013 CO 49

Professional negligence; transactional “case within the case”; causation of damage; “better deal” test.

This case was mentioned in last year’s “supplement” to our outline, and is repeated here for convenience, as it is an important case in the professional liability circles. It involves liability claims against both brokers and transactional attorneys, and the key element of causation. If one is negligent in advising a client in a transaction, and the client gains less from a deal than is anticipated, must the plaintiff prove that a “better deal” could be had? The court is required to find the analog to the “case within a case” that is tried in legal malpractice actions arising out of the litigation process. Although the case addresses the liability of a seller’s broker, the same principles apply to a claim against a seller’s attorney.

The trial court answered the presented question affirmatively, and dismissed a negligence claim against the seller’s broker on summary judgment. The court of appeals reversed, but the supreme court reverses and reinstates the summary judgment ruling. To sustain a professional negligence claim against a transaction real estate broker (or attorney), a plaintiff must show causation of damage, in addition to negligence. That is, it must be shown that but for the alleged negligent acts of the broker, the seller either (1) would have been able to obtain a better deal in the underlying transaction, or (2) would have been better off by walking away from the underlying transaction. In the court’s view, the sellers failed to present evidence that any negligence of the broker caused the seller to suffer damage. They did not establish beyond mere possibility or speculation that they suffered a financial loss as a result of the transactional broker’s professional negligence. Because no injury could be shown, the trial court properly granted summary judgment as a matter of law.

The underlying deal was documented in a contract with a set price, with adjustments for construction of infrastructure and cost-sharing with other developers. The sellers claim that the brokers failed to explain that the net income from the transaction could be substantially less than the stated purchase price as a result of the cost-sharing provisions. The brokers argued that their sellers submitted no evidence that they could have sold the property to someone else for more. This is termed the “better deal” test. The sellers respond that they presented evidence that the property was worth the contract price, or $1.6 million more than the net proceeds of the deal. They argue that they can recover in negligence for this “no deal” scenario. The court of appeals agreed and held that the general measure of damages for a total loss of property is the fair market value of the property at the date of loss. In effect, the Supreme Court says — you must prove you could have sold the property for more, or that you would have made more had you walked away from the deal.

 

Baker v. Wood, Ris & Hames

Petition for Writ of Certiorari GRANTED February 3, 2014.

Summary of the Issues:

  • Whether the court of appeals erred in determining that third-party intended beneficiaries of a deceased testator’s estate plan lack standing to pursue a claim for professional malpractice against the testator’s estate planning attorneys based on either breach of contract or professional negligence.
  • Whether the court of appeals erred in confusing petitioners’ claim for fraudulent concealment with the distinct tort of fraudulent misrepresentation in applying the heightened pleading requirements of C.R.C.P. 9(b) to petitioners’ concealment claim as if it were a claim for fraudulent representation.
Frederick B. Skillern, Esq., is a director and shareholder with Montgomery Little & Soran, P.C., practicing in real estate and related litigation and appeals. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with real estate, professional responsibility and attorney fees, and acts as a mediator and arbitrator in real estate cases. Before joining Montgomery Little in 2003, Fred was in private practice in Denver for 6 years with Carpenter & Klatskin and for 10 years with Isaacson Rosenbaum. He served as a district judge for Colorado’s Eighteenth Judicial District from 2000 through 2002. Fred is a graduate of Dartmouth College, and received his law degree at the University of Colorado in 1976, in another day and time in which the legal job market was simply awful.

ALPS 411: I Believe First Impressions Matter. Do You?

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the ALPS 411 blog on January 13, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Mark3By Mark Bassingthwaighte

Like you, I’ve been a consumer for years and the older I get the more I’ve come to recognize the impact of first impressions. They really do matter. I can only speak for me, but these days if I am forced to interact with a pushy sales person when first entering a store, I often leave and rarely return. If I’m shopping online and a website fails to load properly because it’s outdated or it’s simply hard to navigate, I’m gone. If a grocery store is unclean, I will walk out and shop elsewhere. Heck, everyone knows that you can judge the quality of the food an unfamiliar restaurant serves by the number and types of vehicles in the parking lot, don’t they? First impressions matter and I don’t think I’m alone in believing this. If you agree, I would ask if you’ve taken steps to set the right impression at your own firm because it’s certainly going to be easier to establish and maintain an effective and trusting attorney client relationship if a potential new client’s first impression is a positive one.

Consider this. I have walked into more than a firm or two for the first time where I was placed in an unkempt reception area or an absolutely cluttered and dirty conference room featuring broken furniture. Some of these spaces looked more like old storage rooms than the client areas that they were. I have also been kept waiting for 30 to 60 minutes past my appointment time without explanation and on several occasions even forgotten about entirely. I have been the recipient of cold greetings by staff and treated by reception as if I was a bother. Such experiences can’t help but result in setting an impression. That’s normal. Now put yourself in my shoes. What might your response to any of the above experiences have been? If your own clients were to have a similar experience, what might their response be? I can share my initial response was to begin to question the business and even legal acumen of the attorneys who practiced there. Certainly my initial opinions were open to being changed, but it was now going to be an uphill climb.

First impressions are made at first contact, be it calling for an appointment, looking you up on the Internet, or walking through your front door. They are often set before you even have a chance to meet with a prospective new client. It’s all about presentation and experience. Is there a welcoming greeting? Is the space tidy and inviting? Is your website user friendly and functional on multiple platforms to include mobile devices? With all this in mind, I offer the following as ideas to help get you started in thinking about what you can do to try and make certain the right impression is set at first contact.

  • Train staff to greet every individual as soon as possible, certainly within a minute of their entering the office, and remember that even a sales representative who is turned away today may be a prospective client tomorrow. If your receptionist happens to be helping someone else, have them give a simple “Hello, I will be with you in a moment” in order to acknowledge the individual’s presence.
  • Never allow confidential or personal conversations to be overheard by others, particularly in the reception area. If conversations from an employee break area, a conference room, or attorney offices can be heard in reception consider some type of sound proofing. Periodically remind staff and attorneys that confidential or personal matters should never be discussed within earshot of any visitors. In fact, give staff permission to briefly interrupt a client meeting to perhaps shut a door if voices can be overheard in reception or by visitors elsewhere in the office.
  • Do not allow visitors to view computer screens. The receptionist’s computer screen will often have confidential information on it and thus should never be visible to anyone coming into the office.
  • Occasionally check the waiting area during the day. This is an especially good customer service technique. If anyone sitting there seems bored or frustrated and have been in the reception area less than ten minutes, there’s a problem. The space should be designed to make the wait as pleasant as possible. Remember they don’t like having to wait for you any more than you would like having to wait for them if you were in their office. You might even go sit in your own reception area for 10 or 15 minutes just to see how it feels. For example, does the reading material provided fit the clientele? While Scientific American is probably a great choice for an intellectual property practice, it won’t win any points from clients in a family law practice. If families use your waiting area, make sure there are materials suitable for children. All magazines and newspapers should be current as opposed to displaying outdated ones that have a home address label still attached.
  • Keep the reception area clean and orderly because an unkempt reception area is too easily seen as a reflection of the quality of service offered by the firm. Before the attorney-client relationship has even started, a potential new client may already begin to question whether the attorney has enough time to appropriately deal with their matter simply because it appears the attorney already doesn’t have enough time to pick up the place.
  • In a similar vein, do not minimize the importance of appropriate attire. Staff and attorneys alike need to dress the part whenever meeting potential new clients. This isn’t to suggest that casual Fridays and the like are inappropriate. Just be mindful that people will make initial judgments about someone they are meeting for the first time based upon overall appearance. I can share that I have actually walked into a law firm where I was given a nod by the receptionist who was dressed down, reading a romance novel, and chewing gum with her feet on the desk. Suffice it to say, my initial thought was I would never hire anyone in this firm because tolerance for the sloppy appearance suggests a tolerance for sloppy work. The message was they didn’t care.
  • Client information and documents must be kept confidential at all times. If client file material needs to be in the reception area in order for the receptionist to do his work, make sure that wandering eyes can never land on those materials. Never leave client file material, mail, or anything else that might identify a client on the counter or privacy wall around the reception desk.
  • Try to prevent anyone from having to wait longer than ten minutes. Most people are willing to be reasonable and wait a short amount of time for the right lawyer; but don’t expect them to wait as long for their lawyer as they might for their doctor. While medical emergencies do arise, lawyers can rarely claim a legal emergency. If prospective clients are waiting too long, consider altering your scheduling procedures. If a delay is unavoidable, have staff inform them of the delay as quickly as possible and discuss options. Some will wait and others will need to reschedule.
  • Be mindful of the difficulties the receptionist faces when assigned phone answering duties. Confidentiality can easily be breached in a law office when someone in the reception area overhears a phone conversation or a client name.  The receptionist should have a way of notifying attorneys that someone has arrived or that a client is on the phone without being forced to breach client confidentiality. Statements like “Your two o’clock appointment is here” or “you have a call on line one” as opposed to “John Smith is here and he wants to talk with you about getting a divorce” should be acceptable when necessary. Viable alternatives might include the use of privacy glass, email notifications of a waiting call, or the moving of phone answering responsibilities away from the reception area.
  • If your space permits, have visitor areas and work areas separated by a wall or partition. One never knows what impression potential new clients may have when they observe people working. Some may feel they are seeing energetic and busy staff members and take that as a positive sign while others may feel the staff is overworked or unprofessional and conclude the opposite. A wall with a tasteful picture or two is worth the investment. In fact, some firms place all conference room areas near reception and away from work areas for this very reason.
  • Finally, don’t overlook your Web presence. A poorly designed website, a website that doesn’t display properly on a mobile device, or a website that isn’t kept current can send a message about your competency and priorities as well. After all, who wants their lawyer to be someone who appears to think halfway is good enough or perhaps got started on something and then neglected to follow through?

As I shared above, all of this is about presentation and experience. At first contact if your presentation is poor and/or the experience of any potential client is bad, then you’re going to start off on the wrong foot if they even decide to let you get started at all. Do first impressions matter? You bet they do.

Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier, since 1998. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1100 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management and technology.  Mr. Bassingthwaighte received his J.D. from Drake University Law School and his undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College.

Contact Information:
Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq.
ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Company
Risk Manager
PO Box 9169 | Missoula, Montana 59807
(T) 406.728.3113 | (Toll Free) 800.367.2577 | (F) 406.728.7416
mbass@alpsnet.com | www.alpsnet.com

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

U.S. District Court of Colorado Local Rules Changed as of December 1

The United States District Court for the District of Colorado approved amendments to its Local Rules, effective December 1, 2013. The amended rules can be found on the court’s website. The changes are largely stylistic.

Among other changes, the local rules dealing with attorneys have been moved to a new “Attorney Rules” section and the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct that have not been adopted by the court have been listed in the new rules, rather than in an administrative order.

A new Rule 15.1, “Amended Pleadings,” requires parties to file a strike through and underlined copy of the amended pleading as an exhibit. Another non-stylistic change is that a subsection on confidentiality has been added to Rule 16.6, “Alternative Dispute Resolution.”

Colorado Supreme Court: Attorney Did Not Owe Medical Providers the Duties of Fiduciary to Give Rise to Tort Liability for Failure to Disburse Money from COLTAF

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Accident and Injury Medical Specialists, P.C. v. Mintz on June 25, 2012.

Colo. RPC 1.15—Attorney’s Fiduciary Duties as Trustee of COLTAF Account.

The Supreme Court held that the medical providers in this case may not maintain a breach of fiduciary duty tort action against attorney David Mintz based on his obligations as trustee of a COLTAF account. Although Mintz may have had ethical or contractual obligations to disburse money his clients owed to the providers, Mintz did not owe the medical providers the duties of a fiduciary that give rise to tort liability. The judgment of the court of appeals was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here.

Law Firms and Small Businesses: Protecting Security Interests (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series of cyber security articles. Part two can be found here.

Is there anything more financially fragile than a small business in the U.S. today? As we climb out of the Great Recession, many of the surviving small businesses were forced to cut corners, often making compromises on the IT side. Combine this with an unprecedented rise in cyber crime that took the 2011 U.S. cost of security breaches to $32 billion, and one can easily predict the future security troubles of many small businesses.

As legal, and sometimes operational and financial, advisers to small businesses, law offices should be more aware than ever of the security risks to small business clients, understand how to mitigate these risks, and lend support when a security breach occurs.

These considerations are also important for attorneys to make regarding their own online presence and security risks, especially solo/small firm practitioners.

While I can’t cover IT security in its entirety here, I’ll touch on three areas, each of which should give you an idea of security troubles ahead and what you might be doing to anticipate these troubles:

  1. Professional and financial liabilities
  2. Reasonable contractual expectations
  3. Responses after a breach

To set the stage for my thoughts on the advice and support a law office might provide to small businesses, consider for themselves, or at least be aware of, let me start by sharing a few details of my background. I am the managing partner of 403 Web Security, a web application security company, and WDDinc, a software development firm with close to 20 years of developing software, much of it for small businesses. While I am not a legal expert, I have seen more than my share of software related contracts and have a firsthand view of the risks these organizations place themselves under.

For the sake of simplicity and to take full advantage of my experience, I’ll limit my notes to web application security – more commonly known as security within small business web sites.

Professional and Financial Liabilities

Without hesitation, I can say that the vast majority of small businesses not only have inadequate security protections in place, but also are oblivious to the fact they are security risks. Even worse, recent headlined security breaches of high-profile companies seem to engender only a misguided belief that they are immune from security attacks because they are small fish in a huge ocean.

The truth is, not only are small businesses not immune from attack, they are prime targets because of their lack of security. Consider the monetary value of even small, undetected breaches – unlimited time to exploit compromised data and the opportunity to revisit the sources months and years into the future.

When considering security liabilities, I like to separate small businesses into two categories. The first would be those businesses that collect and save protected data (i.e., medical, identity) within their own environments. The web sites that support these businesses tend to be custom built by design or development companies that have little or no experience in creating secure web sites, and almost never have the capabilities of testing new sites for security vulnerabilities. These companies potentially are open to huge fines when their data is compromised.

The second, and larger, category is small businesses with e-commerce components. These businesses usually, and wisely, use well-established (and secure) external web services to handle credit card and other payment transactions. Unfortunately, this approach is successful only when the business’ basic web site is secure. The point almost always missed is that a hacker does not always breach a web site for its underlying data. For example, a hacked site may be modified in subtle ways to take an unsuspecting consumer to a fraudulent e-commerce service that will happily collect and exploit the consumer’s credit card as soon as it is entered. Or, one of my favorite security flaws, Cross Site Scripting (XSS), might allow a hacker to take over a legitimate user’s browser – effectively compromising that user’s e-commerce transactions or invading the user’s entire computer.

In either case, a small business may be financially and legally liable for the fraud and illegitimate use of information from its security breaches. Perhaps just as importantly, the loss of reputation and consumer confidence alone might be enough to ruin any small business.

A proactive law firm might be in a unique position to address potential security issues and breach consequences with their clients. This should be part of the support of any client and attorneys should heed the same advice themselves.

Alan Wlasuk is a managing partner of 403 Web Security, a full service, secure web application development company. A Bell Labs Fellow award-winner with 18+ years of experience building secure web applications, Wlasuk is an expert in web security – from evaluation to web development and remediation.

Learn More: Cyber Security/Privacy CLE Homestudy Programs

Is Your Sensitive Data Secure: Cyber Insurance for Your Firm and Your Clients (video on-demand and mp3 download)

Avoiding The Lawyer’s Digital Nightmare: How To Safeguard Your and Your Clients’ Sensitive Information And Survive The Inevitable (?) Security Breach (video on-demand, mp3 download, and audio CD)

Ethics in a Wild Wired World (video on-demand, mp3 download, and audio CD)

To Use and Protect: Privacy Basics for Business (video on-demand and mp3 download)

CBA Ethics Committee Updates Formal Opinion 68, “Conflicts of Interest; Propriety of Multiple Representation”

The Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee has been working on updating their Formal Ethics Opinions in order to reflect changes in the law, including the 2008 revision to the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. As part of that effort, the Ethics Committee released an updated version of Formal Opinion 68, “Conflicts of Interest; Propriety of Multiple Representation” in December 2011, and it was published in the March 2012 issue of The Colorado Lawyer.

Formal Opinion 68 addresses four specific conflict situations:

1) representation of both a husband and wife in negotiating a property settlement before dissolution proceedings commence;
2) representation of both the buyer and seller in a residential real estate transaction;
3) representation of both the buyer and seller of a business; and
4) representation of individuals in drafting an entity agreement, and representation of solely an entity in its formation.

The Ethics Committee opines that, in the first scenario, the dual representation would be impermissible under the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct (Colo. RPC or Rules) because even if the divorce settlement agreement is uncontested, it must be approved by the court, and counsel cannot represent two parties whose interests are adverse under Colo. RPC 1.7.

In the second, third, and fourth scenarios, which are all transactional, the Ethics Committee declines to issue a blanket prohibition on representing both parties to the proposed transactions, but rather notes that each individual situation will require a thorough analysis of the propriety of the representation.

Opinion 68 provides a thoughtful and detailed evaluation of Colo. RPC 1.7 and its comments. It thoroughly examines informed consent, including when and whether it is appropriate, what can be consented to, how to obtain informed consent, the need to obtain new consent when there are situational changes, and confirmation in writing. Each scenario listed above is explored in depth, and the propriety of dual representation is examined for all for sample scenarios. The message of the Ethics Committee is clear: an attorney must examine the specific scenario involving a concurrent conflict of interest with the utmost scrutiny and caution prior to undertaking representation of conflicting parties.

The Ethics Committee develops its formal opinions as a means for providing Colorado attorneys with guidance. However, they issue the following caveat:

Formal Ethics Opinions are issued for advisory purposes only and are not in any way binding on the Colorado Supreme Court, the Presiding Disciplinary Judge, the Attorney Regulation Committee, or the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, and do not provide protection against disciplinary actions.

Regulation Counsel Says Law Students Need More Exposure to Professionalism

This post originally appeared on the Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers blog. Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers is an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) that leverages the Carnegie Model and the work of law schools and professors committed to legal education reform to align legal education with the needs of an evolving profession by providing a supported platform for shared learning, experimentation, ongoing measurement and collective implementation.

We recently sat down to talk with John Gleason. As Regulation Counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, he directs the office of the Court responsible for lawyer admissions, registration, regulation, and client protection. In 2010, Gleason was appointed by the Arizona Supreme Court to investigate and prosecute Andrew Thomas, the former Maricopa County Attorney—a prosecution that last week ended in the disbarment of Thomas and one of his lieutenants, and the suspension of another attorney in Thomas’ office.

Gleason often meets lawyers when they are at their most vulnerable—under investigation for misconduct—and he believes new lawyers need more guidance on professional issues. Recent graduates, he says, are often referred to his office for minor misconduct issues. “There are an enormous number of issues that are not covered in law school. In fact, probably most issues related to professionalism are not covered in law school.”

Hear more from John Gleason below or click here to view the rest of his interview.

Alli Gerkman is Online Content Manager for IAALS, where she manages, edits, and creates content for IAALS and Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers.

Coach’s Corner: Do Your Due Diligence on New Clients

Under Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16, a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client if “the representation will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer or has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client.”

However, withdrawing from a representation already begun is extremely difficult, as much of the rest of Rule 1.16 attests. An attempt to withdraw without adequate communication about and careful records of the difficulty that the client has caused — whether for nonpayment of fees, lack of cooperation or some other failing — may bring a state bar disciplinary action requiring future work without pay to fulfill ethical obligations toward the client.

Withdrawal cannot be done without reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering the client’s papers and property and refunding any advance payment of fees that have not been earned.

The simple fact is that no lawyer needs to contend with such headaches. The antidote to withdrawal is to undertake full due diligence before entering into a formal engagement agreement with the client. At the time of engagement, a lawyer must determine whether the goals of the client are understood and can be met. This also requires determining whether the client will facilitate achieving those goals. And facilitation, as Rule 1.16 suggests, means paying the bill and cooperating with the lawyer.

Due diligence on the client’s willingness and ability to pay should be documented in the initial engagement agreement. This investigation is a step that too many lawyers neglect, though it can be as simple as requesting a credit report from one of the consumer credit agencies or from a business credit reporter such as Dun & Bradstreet.

Once it is clear that prospective clients can pay, a signed engagement stating the terms and responsibilities for payment attests that they will pay. Clients who cannot or will not sign a fee agreement or pay a retainer, or who want to start now and pay later, should be considered suspect.

Cooperation is a similar issue. Avoid a client with unrealistic expectations or demands. Discussing engagement terms will frequently uncover the client who will in the future express irritation with delay, chronically complain about everything, demand constant or instant attention or expect unrealistic or abnormal hand-holding. Telltale signs are when prospective clients:

  • insist that their matter is “life and death”; such clients will often be future sources of last minute emergencies that at best are irritating and at worst can result in errors under pressures;
  • use pressure tactics to urge that their matter be handled immediately.
  • demonstrate a bad attitude toward lawyers and the judicial system, or suggest that they know better than the lawyer what needs to be done; and/or
  • cannot articulate what they want their lawyer to achieve.

Due diligence is a business essential. When you determine that a client will perceive what you do as being worthwhile and valuable, you are more likely to have successful engagements and a financially successful firm. Conversely, rejecting potential problem clients before representation will enhance that success by eliminating fee-collection difficulties and possible malpractice claims.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes a syndicated legal column, Coach’s Corner, where this post originally appeared on January 23, 2012.