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Posted on: Mar 25, 2020

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Working from Home
When working from home, whether by choice or by a “stay in place” order, you need to project the confidence and professionalism your clients expect. Be aware of your surroundings including background noise and appearance of the physical environment for videoconferencing. Children playing, dogs barking, dishes clanging, and other common household sounds, can be very distracting. While dropped calls and static can happen anywhere, it seems to happen more often when conducting business using a cell phone at home with poor Wi-fi connection. On an ongoing basis, a client may determine that these distractions reflect poorly on the lawyer’s abilities to be attentive and to prioritize the work.  The best way to project confidence and professionalism is to look and act like you are focused, organized, and ready to work. 

A few practice tips: (1) Technology matters – test Wi-fi connections, computer cameras, speakers, microphones, and lighting; (2) audio and video, including screen sharing options, recording capabilities, and other features are not the same across all platforms; (3) identify yourself when you are speaking in large groups; (4) use the mute button when you are not speaking, but do not tune out; (5) use a quite space - be conscious of background noises and your (heavy) breathing; (6) do not carry the phone into the bathroom; and (7) remember to disconnect at the end of the call or videoconference. 

Do not procrastinate.
While many deadlines are tolled and/or extended by court order or by virtue of “social distancing,” it is better to be proactive. Use the down time to review client matters, to plan ahead, and to take care of things that have been lingering on your to do list. A lawyer’s duty of diligence, even during uncertain times, is quite appropriately stated in a Comment 7 to TDRP 1.01: “A lawyer should feel a moral or professional obligation to pursue a matter on behalf of a client with reasonable diligence and promptness despite opposition, obstruction or personal inconvenience to the lawyer.” Courthouse closures, self-quarantines, and other restrictions may be inconvenient, but are no match for a proactive lawyer.

Communicate with your clients.
A lawyer’s duty to keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter under TDRP 1.03, includes notifying clients about your availability to work on cases, unexpected delays, and new deadlines. Clients do not receive the barrage of official emails and orders with updates on these important issues. Clients will appreciate updates posted on lawyer’s websites and emails with actual and remote office hours and/or offered methods of communication (e.g., telephone or videoconference). New technology and free online or cloud-based services may be helpful in the short-run, but must be carefully evaluated to confirm that client information is secure and properly safeguarded.

Succession Planning
A succession plan should be put into place that designates another competent lawyer to review client files, notify clients and courts of the original lawyer’s incapacity or death, and assess the immediate client needs. Reciprocal agreements between solo practitioners in similar practice areas can be particularly useful. While advance planning is preferable, if a lawyer becomes unwell or unable to work, clients should be notified as soon as possible and attempts should be made to find a competent lawyer to assist with the transfer of the client file. TDRP 13.01, Notice of Attorney's Cessation of Practice, provides guidance for situations involving an attorney’s unexpected passing. Clients must consent to new counsel and client confidentiality must be maintained.

A little courtesy goes a long way.
Be professional and courteous to others. Everyone is a bit dazed by what is being called the “new normal,” something that seems to be changing every hour. This is the time to be flexible, cooperative with opposing counsel, and polite to court personnel.

Minimizing Stress and Fostering a Healthier Lifestyle
Social and professional isolation; concerns about your own health and the well-being of employees, friends, and loved ones; worries about the economy and stock market; and the looming question of when is the pandemic is going to end can cause tremendous stress and anxiety. Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program is available 24/7 with confidential support and can provide simple daily wellness strategies you can implement to minimize stress and foster a healthier lifestyle. 1-800-343-TLAP (8527) or text TLAP to 555888.

 

Here are 19 things you can do to improve your ethics and professional health:

  1. Check all deadlines, confirm court procedures and closures, and carefully calculate new deadlines based on orders tolling statutes of limitations.
  2. Read recent and proposed changes to the Texas disciplinary rules (e.g., technology competence).
  3. Send well-wishes and status reports to clients.
  4. Review your “form” contract.
  5. Revise other commonly used forms.
  6. Clean up your digital and physical workspace.
  7. Back up your computer and devices.
  8. Reconcile your trust account.
  9. Explore ways to improve your work efficiency.
  10. Review your expenses with an eye towards cutting costs or increasing the value of the services (e.g., lease term, insurance, land lines, cell phones, internet providers, virtual services, etc.).
  11. Develop a business plan and marketing strategy.
  12. Update your contact list.
  13. Update your social media profile.
  14. Change your passwords.
  15. Update your will.
  16. Complete your required annual Minimum Continuing Legal Education Requirements (free online videos are available for HBA members).
  17. Volunteer for a pro bono case through Houston Volunteer Lawyers.
  18. Pay your HCAD Business Personal Property Rendition Tax.
  19. Draft a disaster/emergency preparedness plan.

 

Jennifer A. Hasley, a partner at Hasley Scarano, LLP, maintains a statewide trial and appellate practice focused almost exclusively on attorney disciplinary issues and professional liability claims She is Board Certified in Civil Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization; an elected director and current treasurer of the Houston Bar Association; and chair of Houston Volunteer Lawyers.