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Hidden dangers that could lead to malpractice

By Nancy Byerly Jones
Dolan Media Newswires 

There are a number of all-too-well-known malpractice and grievance traps at a law firm: conflicts of interest, missed deadlines, lack of competency, confidentiality/fiduciary breaches, clerical errors, failure to document adequately and poor client relations. But other, hidden dangers could be lurking right under our noses.

1) Sloppy hiring

Malpractice will inevitably raise its destructive head when too little attention is given to who is hired and quality of training and supervision.

All too often, the interview process is treated as merely cursory and hiring decisions are made quickly, with more emphasis placed on pedigree than the potential fit of an applicant within the firm’s culture. A go-getter may rise quickly to a supervisory position, but if he abuses his authority or has poor interpersonal skills, the fallout could be extreme.

With no watchdog, the odds are greatly increased for malpractice — not to mention high employee turnover, low office morale and lower productivity.

2) Greed

A multitude of problems can invade firms when monetary greed begins to outweigh compassion for clients and loyalty to the profession. When volume is too high in relation to staff capabilities, quality is severely compromised. Chronically and overly excessive caseloads may appear to be a mark of success, but stupidity is the more accurate word.

3) A firm in name only

Do you know by heart your billable hours and your largest clients’ golf handicaps, but don’t know the names of your co-workers one floor down? Do you share the costs and liabilities with partners, but otherwise operate as individual practices that just happen to be under the same roof? Are regular and productive communications few and far between? Does each section of your firm follow its own systems and procedures separate and apart from the other departments?

Firms in name only are ticking time bombs. Too many attorneys fail to see the negatives when their firm name is mere verbiage, for identification purposes only. Remember: Those departments that excel in implementing good policies and reaching their goals will share equally in the negative fallout from another department’s failure to do the same, so best get to know each other.

4) No accountability

Setting goals, adopting systems or formulating procedures is useless unless all attorneys and staff are held accountable to do what is needed and expected of them.

What does accountability mean in your firm? Has leadership taken the necessary time to define different levels of accountability and the corresponding disciplinary actions? Are the rules fairly enforced across the board?

Failing to hold ourselves and others accountable is an enormous obstacle in our path to success. We want success, but when the steps toward reaching our goals are awkward or tough ones, we often shy away rather than hold folks absolutely accountable to do their part.

5) Poorly balanced lives

The well-balanced, healthy lawyer wins. Ignore your health and the importance of finding a balance between your professional and personal lives and it will catch up with you, in and out of the office.

Further, a failure to encourage and insist upon a healthy balance for your employees will ultimately backfire.

6) Lousy attitudes

Chronic bad attitudes form the perfect breeding ground for malpractice. We all feel the sapped energy and lost productivity in the company of a chronically negative individual. The bad effects of their poor attitude far outweigh any skills they may possess.

Other problem attitudes are reflected in statements such as, “It’s someone else’s job” or “I’m too busy.” If we allow that kind of environment to exist within our firms, we shouldn’t be surprised when we must pay the cost of the harm done.

Lawyers need to remain acutely aware of the hidden dangers that can lurk within their firms. We may think we’re too busy to bother with such matters, but if a malpractice claim or grievance lands on our desk, the deadlines will be imposed upon us whether we have time for them or not.

Add to that the other negative ramifications and costs to our client base and it’s a no-brainer. Taking steps to avoid being put in that position is an elemental decision.

Nancy Byerly Jones is an attorney and certified family financial mediator who heads up NBJ Consulting & Conflict Resolution in Boone, N.C. She can be contacted at

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