June 26, 2019

Archives for March 31, 2015

The Colorado Lawyer: Screen Clients First—Avoid Problems Later

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2014 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 attorneys realize.


For many attorneys in today’s difficult economic world, screening clients seems like a far-fetched concept, akin to telling a starving man to watch what he eats. Many firms are just glad to have clients; screening the few they have appears to be the least of the firm’s worries.

However, according to the data, problem clients are often worse than no clients at all. Clients who pay fees, but who also bring legal malpractice claims, only hurt—not help—the attorney and can result in a large net loss for the firm. The challenge comes in screening out the problem clients during the intake process.

Screening clients has a different meaning depending on the size, type, and location of a law practice. For solo practitioners, it will mean identifying the risk factors for new clients (preferably through use of a checklist) and then balancing the risks against the potential rewards of the representation. For smaller and mid-size firms, screening involves identifying standard practices and procedures suitable for the needs and expertise of the law practice, and ensuring that all of the lawyers in the practice consistently follow those rules. For larger firms, effective screening includes systems to ensure consistent compliance with the firm’s policies.

Every representation, whether for a paying client or for a pro bono client, requires that the attorney exercise good judgment about acceptance of the new client; and because it involves judgment, there is no formula for every decision regarding whether to accept a new client. However, there are some practices and procedures attorneys can implement when creating checklists and developing systems for screening prospective new clients.

Developing a Screening Method

Some indicators for problem clients seem obvious. Others are the product of data about legal malpractice claims and the risks of the modern-day law practice. The most important part of client screening is to adopt and follow a set of standard practices and procedures, including referring to a screening checklist, that apply to every new client and matter.

1. Ask the right questions.

Common sense goes a long way in detecting and avoiding problem clients. For example, one of the most telling questions to ask a new client is: “How many attorneys have previously represented you in this matter?” If the answer to that question is “seven,” the attorney will want to think long and hard about becoming the eighth. Clients who have been unhappy enough to hire and fire seven attorneys are unlikely to be happy with the eighth. Of greater concern is that, if their case or transaction does not go well in their eyes, they just might hire a ninth to sue the eighth for malpractice.

The lawyer should ask prospective clients other common-sense questions. For example: How many times have you been a party to litigation? Potential clients who have been parties to several prior cases should raise red flags. This is especially true for potential clients who have made a career of suing other people. Eventually, these serial plaintiffs make their way to also suing their attorney.

The realities of the proposed representation are also relevant when deciding to take on a new client. In making this assessment, consider when the work must get done. This involves calculating the first deadline for the new matter. Representations often do not end well if they begin on the eve of (1) the expiration of the statute of limitations for a plaintiff’s claim; (2) a scheduled closing for completion of a transaction or deal; or (3) any other imminent deadline. Unrealistic deadlines are red flags for a new representation.

Sometimes, there are good reasons a client reaches out to an attorney to undertake a representation on the eve of a pressing deadline. However, they are sometimes the same reasons an attorney should have second thoughts about accepting the representation. It could be that an earlier attorney fired the client because the client did not pay, or there could be insurmountable problems that have left the client desperate for immediate representation. Whatever the reason, the most significant questions attorneys should ask are: (1) When is the earliest deadline? and (2) Why is the client just now reaching out? The answers to these questions are important in deciding whether to accept the representation.

Another good question to ask is whether the prospective client can afford to pay the attorney fees associated with the representation. If there is no realistic chance of getting paid and the attorney takes the case anyway, the attorney assumes the risks of liability with no opportunity for compensation. This is a lose–lose proposition. Thus, a prospective client’s ability to pay is an important pre-representation topic that attorneys should candidly address.

Other things to consider when screening prospective clients include (1) possible conflicts with other clients; (2) whether the attorney has the expertise required to effectively handle all of the client’s issues; and (3) the role the client expects the attorney to play in the context of the client’s overall situation. These determinations are of particular concern, because they relate to an attorney’s ethical obligations toward the client.

For example, the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules or Colo. RPC) require an attorney to avoid conflicts with current and past clients or, alternatively, to take special care when entering into an engagement that could create potential conflicts.[1] The Rules also address attorney competence, requiring that an attorney has the “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”[2] Additionally, the Rules allow an attorney to limit the scope of representation at the outset of an engagement, if reasonable.[3] Thorough screening may reveal whether limiting the scope of representation from the outset is a prudent option under the circumstances, as opposed to declining the engagement, based on the client’s stated objectives. If the attorney has captured in writing the scope of the mutually agreed representation at the beginning of the engagement, that attorney will be in a far better position should the client later challenge the attorney on this front.

Certain types of engagements may be permitted under the Rules, but not under the Standards of Professional Conduct of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Attorneys should be aware that the U.S. District Court has declined to adopt the state’s “unbundling” rule, Colo. RPC 1.2(c), which allows the provision of limited representation to pro se parties, as described in Colo. RPC 11(b) and Rule 311(b) of the County Court Rules of Civil Procedure.[4] For example, in state court matters, an attorney may provide assistance to a pro se litigant without entering an appearance. The same attorney, however, is prohibited from “ghost writing” a pro se party’s filings in federal court. The attorney should turn away a potential client who is seeking the type of behind-the-scenes assistance that the U.S. District Court does not permit.

On October 10, 2014, the U.S. District Court promulgated proposed amendments to its local rules that include an opt-out from comment 14 to Colo. RPC 1.2(d). The comment, which the Colorado Supreme Court adopted on March 24, 2014, states that a Colorado attorney may counsel clients “regarding the validity, scope, and meaning” of the medical marijuana and recreational marijuana provisions of the state constitution, and “may assist a client in conduct that the lawyer reasonably believes is permitted by these constitutional provisions” and the laws implementing them, as long as the attorney also “advise[s] the client regarding related federal law and policy.” If the District of Colorado ultimately decides not to adopt comment 14, attorneys admitted to practice in that court would need to carefully consider whether they could accept engagements involving advice regarding the state’s marijuana laws.

In sum, thorough screening provides a double benefit to the prudent attorney. It decreases the attorney’s exposure to malpractice suits and fulfills several ethical obligations.

2. Consider what’s expected.

An attorney should inquire about the prospective client’s expectations—of both the representation and the attorney. Some clients simply expect their attorney to achieve a successful result on their behalf, without consideration as to how that end is achieved. These attorney-client relationships rarely end well. A candid conversation about what is possible, along with a description of what the attorney can and cannot do, is an important part of the screening process. If there are things the prospective client expects that the attorney is unable or unwilling to do, the attorney should decline the representation.

One other thing to watch for is a client who is “too good to be true.” Often, these are the same clients who expect an attorney to bend (or ignore) the rules. Their stories are full of contradictions, and they expect results regardless of means. Avoid the temptation of agreeing to represent them without conducting a thorough investigation; these may turn out to be problem clients, too.

3. Conduct some background research.

The Internet provides attorneys cost-effective tools for conducting fast preliminary background research on prospective clients. The research might turn up little, or it might disclose a prospective client with a history of problems that often extend to anyone and everyone around the client. Credit checks (with the consent of the prospective client) could reflect someone who either cannot or does not pay. A simple litigation search might reflect a prospective client who has sued his or her attorney before. These possible clients require a long look before an attorney would agree to the representation.

4. Create a client-screening system.

Inevitably, the client who creates the most problems is the one who escaped the screening filters. Effective systems make it next to impossible for potential problem clients to slip through the cracks. This means that a file cannot be opened or a matter billed unless the screening questions have been asked and the data collected. Hence, the certainty of the system is as important as the content of the screening itself.

NOTES

[1] See Colo. RPC 1.7 and 1.8. Comment 3 to Rule 1.7, which addresses conflicts with current clients, states, in part, “[a] conflict of interest may exist before representation is undertaken, in which event the representation must be declined, unless the lawyer obtains the informed written consent of each client . . .” under the conditions provided in the rule.

[2] See Colo. RPC 1.1.

[3] Colo. RPC 1.2, cmts. 6 and 7.

[4] See D.C.Colo.L.Atty.R. 2(b)(1).

 

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.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Defendant who Violated Conditions of Youthful Offender Sentence Did Not Complete Sentence

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Martinez on Thursday, March 26, 2015.

Youthful Offender System—Revocation—Jurisdiction—Motion for Reconsideration—Evidence.

On April 30, 2007, defendant, a juvenile at the time, pleaded guilty to first-degree assault. He received a sentence of eighteen years in the custody of the Department of Corrections (DOC), suspended pending successful completion of a six-year sentence to Youthful Offender System (YOS). On January 18, 2012, while serving the community supervision portion of his YOS sentence, defendant walked away from his YOS residential center. On March 6, 2012, after an administrative hearing, defendant was found guilty of escape without force. The date defendant’s YOS sentence was set to expire (May 12, 2012) passed without the prosecution filing any documents related to revocation proceedings against defendant in Arapahoe County. The prosecution later moved to revoke defendant’s YOS sentence. The trial court denied the prosecution’s motion for lack of jurisdiction.

On appeal, the People contended that the district court erred when it concluded it did not have jurisdiction to revoke defendant’s YOS sentence. By violating conditions of his YOS sentence before the anticipated completion date, defendant did not successfully complete his YOS sentence. Further, the arrest and custodial status of an offender alleged to have violated the terms and conditions of a YOS sentence toll the discharge date of the YOS sentence pending resolution of the charges. Accordingly, the district court retained jurisdiction to revoke defendant’s YOS sentence and impose the original DOC sentence. The Court of Appeals disapproved those portions of the district court’s orders deciding to the contrary.

However, in its order on the prosecution’s motion to reconsider, the trial court ruled in the alternative that if it retained jurisdiction to revoke defendant’s sentence, it was exercising its discretion to dismiss the revocation proceeding based on the DOC’s failure to comply with the provisions of the YOS statute. Because the district court retained discretion to fashion a remedy it deemed appropriate for the statutory violation, the trial court did not abuse that discretion in determining dismissal was the appropriate remedy.

The People further contended that the district court erred when it refused to consider new evidence attached to their motion for reconsideration. Because the applicable rules of criminal and civil procedure did not allow for the introduction of new evidence and the prosecution failed to establish an extraordinary circumstance entitling it to relief under CRCP 60(b)(5), the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the prosecution’s motion altogether. The order was affirmed and the ruling was disapproved in part.

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

Colorado Court of Appeals: Eyewitness “Showup” Identification Not Inherently Impermissible

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Theus-Roberts on Thursday, March 26, 2015.

Eyewitness—Identification—Jury Instructions—Witness Credibility—Expert Testimony—Lay Witness—Complicity.

According to the prosecution’s evidence at trial, Theus-Roberts and another man, Parrish, got into a cab and told the driver to take them to a designated location. When they got there, Parrish got out. Theus-Roberts had the driver take him to several other locations before returning to the initial destination approximately an hour later, running up a $90 fare. Theus-Roberts gave the driver $80 in cash, told him he would need to get the rest from his apartment, and walked away. Eventually, a man—identified by the driver at trial as Theus-Roberts—came to the driver’s window, aimed a gun at the driver, demanded and took the $80, and shot the driver in the chest. The driver fled and called 911. A jury convicted Theus-Robert of attempted first-degree murder, first-degree assault, aggravated robbery, second-degree assault, and two crime of violence sentence enhancers.

On appeal, Theus-Roberts contended that the trial court erred by denying his suppression motion and allowing an eyewitness, R.M., to give testimony that was the product of an unduly suggestive out-of-court showup. R.M. lived in a house across the street from where the shooting occurred and looked out her window when she heard a loud noise. She saw a “black male wearing dark clothing and carrying a black bag next to the taxi cab.” The man “walked away from the scene at a quick pace southbound through the alley.” At the scene of the crime, R.M. identified the black bag and thereafter identified Theus-Roberts as the shooter. Under the totality of the circumstances in this case, the identification was not unreliable. Therefore, the trial court did not err by denying the suppression motion.

Theus-Roberts also argued that the trial court erred in refusing to give his three jury instructions that would have provided guidance on evaluating the reliability of eyewitness identification testimony. Here, the jury received the pattern instruction on the credibility of witnesses instruction. Therefore, the trial court did not err in refusing Theus-Roberts’s additional tendered instructions.

Theus-Roberts contended that the trial court erroneously admitted irrelevant and prejudicial expert testimony from a lay witness when it allowed a police officer to testify about gunshot residue (GSR) testing and fingerprint recovery. After a forensic expert testified about the possible explanation for absence of GSR and fingerprint evidence, the police officer who ordered the testing testified as to his experience with this type of evidence. The officer was qualified by his experience and training to testify about GSR and fingerprint testing; his testimony was brief; and it was cumulative of the testimony of experts who had already testified, in detail and without objection, about why GSR or latent fingerprint tests might be negative. Therefore, any error was harmless.

Theus-Roberts further contended that the trial court erred in instructing the jury, over his objection, on complicity. However, the evidence was sufficient to permit the jury to conclude that Parrish was the shooter and that Theus-Roberts intended to—and did—aid and abet Parrish in setting up the crime. Thus, the trial court did not err in instructing the jury on complicity. The judgement was affirmed.

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

Colorado Court of Appeals: Specific Victim or Victims Must Be Named to Support Assault and Manslaughter Charges

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Griego on Thursday, March 26, 2015.

Driving Under the Influence—Attempted Reckless Manslaughter—Attempted Second-Degree Assault—Evidence—Victim.

On December 26, 2005 and October 7, 2006, defendant was observed operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. On both of these occasions, he was issued a summons for driving while under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Although the investigating officer provided a detailed report to the District Attorney’s Office indicating that it would not be appropriate to file any additional charges in these cases, it nevertheless charged defendant with attempted reckless manslaughter and attempted second-degree assault, both felonies. Over defendant’s objections, the trial court permitted the prosecution to present evidence under CRE 404(b) that defendant had previously been arrested for DUI six times between June 20, 1992 and September 30, 2001, which was the sole basis for the additional charges. He was convicted on both counts.

On appeal, defendant contended that the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence to show that “another person” was put in danger by his behavior in either incident. The manslaughter and second-degree assault statutes both require a substantial risk to “another person” and the likelihood that “another person” will die or receive serious bodily injury. To secure a conviction under CRS §§ 18-3-104 and -203, therefore, the prosecution must establish that the defendant’s behavior placed a discernible person at substantial risk for likely death or serious bodily injury. It is insufficient merely to establish that the defendant placed any and all members of the public in his or her vicinity at risk. Here, there is no evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could find that defendant’s driving on either date jeopardized or threatened any oncoming traffic or individuals. Accordingly, the trial court erred in denying defendant’s motion for a judgment of acquittal as to both counts.

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

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 3/31/2015

On Tuesday, March 31, 2015, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued two published opinions and no unpublished opinion.

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.