Disaster Recovery: Steps to Take in Recovery Effort

Prepared by Suzanne Rose, Management Consultant

Damage Assessment

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Preparing for a Disaster


• Do you have a written disaster response plan?

• Do you have a written evacuation plan for your office personnel in the event of fire, tornado or flood?

• Has the evacuation plan been distributed to everyone in your office?

• Is a person or group of people in your firm assigned the responsibility for evacuating everyone from the office or building in the event of a disaster?

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Protecting your Practice in the Event of a Disaster

In recent years, Tennessee has been the unfortunate recipient of terrible floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters that have completely leveled law firms. Take this disaster plan self-audit to determine your state of readiness should disaster strike. In addition to the audit, this section contains information that is designed to assist you in the recovery process should a disaster strike.

Tickler and Calendar Systems

There are two systems that each lawyer and law firm should have in place to ensure that deadlines are not missed and files are not neglected - the Tickler System and the Calendar System.

Systems for reminding you to work on files are called Tickler or Diary Systems. The tickler system is one of the most important systems in the law office. It assists the lawyer in anticipating future deadlines, planning work and preventing files from being neglected.

Systems for reminding you of critical deadlines and appointments are called Calendar or Docket Systems.

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Conflict of Interest Systems

It is essential (and absolutely required by most malpractice insurance carriers) that you institute a conflict of interest system.  While you may initially remember the name of every client and opposing party in all of your cases, as your practice continues, your memory will fade.  You must have a designated system to check for conflicts when new potential clients walk through your door.

Common Areas Where Conflicts Arise:

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Client Relations and Communication

Client communication (or lack of adequate client communication) represents a significant percentage of the total number of malpractice claims and ethical complaints received by insurers and the Board of Professional Responsibility. The following general procedures should be implemented in a law practice to avoid client communication problems.

Correspondence & Communication
The attorney should communicate with the client and document all aspects of case acceptance, declination and status to the client as follows:

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Client File Retention

There are two sensitive areas of file retention - the turning over of files to clients and how long to retain files once the representation is complete. There are both ethical and malpractice considerations.

Turning Over the File to the Client
The firm’s file retention policy should address and instruct attorneys and staff as to the circumstances under which client files or information can be turned over to the client or released. Such a policy should include the following:

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Client File Management and File Retention

How much time do you spend looking for a file? How much time do you spend rifling through files to find a particular document or the address of opposing counsel? How much time do you (or your staff) spend filing? Most likely your answer will be, "too much." The law business is a paper-intensive one. If not managed properly, the paper will overwhelm any filing system you may have in place.

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Case Management

Case management is important, particularly for the solo or small firm practitioner. In order for an attorney to adequately and responsibly manage their case load, certain procedures must be in place.

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Establishing Realistic Expectations

After the screening process has been completed and a decision to represent the client has been made, the attorney should discuss the merits and problems of the client’s case with the client. It is important that the attorney convey verbally and in writing (via an engagement letter) the following to the client:

• The issues involved with the case.

• The problems regarding the case.

• The process involved in pursuing the case.

• The client’s obligations throughout the case and any specific requirements of the client.

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Case Acceptance and Client Screening

It is tempting (and sometimes necessary) as a new lawyer or at the start-up of your own firm to take whatever clients or cases walk in the door. Even the most successful lawyers sometimes suffer from the fear that the most recent client that engaged the attorney will be his or her last. But there are dangers in accepting every case. Lawyers who fail to initiate some discipline in the types of cases they accept early in their practice are the lawyers who eventually find that they are not managing their law practice - their law practice is managing them.

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The Practice of Law

Once you have chosen your entity through which you practice law, determined the physical location where you will practice, set up your computer, obtained insurance, and set a budget, you are ready to begin the practice of law. Hurray!

Now what?

In this section, the Solo in a Box Toolkit looks at day-to-day operating issues. It also includes information for lawyers facing an ethical complaint or in need of services from the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program.

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Marketing Tips

TnBar Management Services offers these additional practice tips for marketing.

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Developing an Internet Presence

It is highly recommended that a newly formed solo or small firm have a presence on the internet.  A 2012 LexisNexis® Attorney Selection Research Study showed that 76% of adult internet users in the United States seeking an attorney turned to online resources at some point in the process. 

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Branding Your Practice

Establish yourself as an attorney and do the best you can to show what practice area you are trying to “sell” within the realm of legal services. Try to show your “niche” and what sets you apart from other lawyers.

Have a logo made and use it on your letterhead, business cards, and networking materials.

Go to every networking and civic event your work and family life will allow. When you attend, a networking function, wear a personalized nametag with your logo.

NEVER leave home without business cards.

Ethical Issues in Human Resources

As set forth in RPC 5.3, you are responsible for conduct of your employee(s) that would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by a lawyer if you ordered or ratify the conduct, or if you know of your employee’s conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fail to take reasonable remedial action.

Issues Surrounding Terminations

• If your former employee applies for and received unemployment benefits, your mandatory unemployment insurance premiums may increase.

• A former employee may receive unemployment benefits if they are terminated for something other than “misconduct.”

• As set forth in T.C.A. § 50-7-303, “misconduct” includes: the following conduct by a claimant:

(1) Conscious disregard of the rights or interests of the employer;

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Advice on Supervision

Have a written policy regarding attendance (including holiday and vacation time), performance, job duties, appropriate attire, and standards expected. Document that your employee has received and understands the policy.

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Advice on Interviews

 The interview is a critical step in the hiring process and its importance cannot be overstated.

• Be flexible about scheduling interviews. A good candidate may have to be scheduled after his or her normal working hours.

• Review the resume or application in advance to learn the basic information about the person.

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Advice on Hiring

• Consult with your accountant about expenses and related requirements associated with an employee, such as federal withholding, unemployment insurance, etc. Be sure to take this into account as you budget for your new employee.

• Hire slowly, but fire quickly.

• Write a persuasive advertisement, being careful not to oversell the job; advertise the position in publications that attract quality candidates

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Human Resources Help

Whether you are in need of a receptionist to answer phones or a paralegal to assist with complex matters, at some point you will likely need to hire someone. Your clients will not want to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for you to format a document or call the courthouse to check on available motion dates. Logically, if you reach the point where you are spending as much time handling the administrative work as you are handling the legal work, you are probably leaving money on the table. Good employees will provide a positive return on investment.

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Trust Accounting and Other Ethical Issues in Finance/Accounting

Trust Accounting
One of the fastest ways to commit an ethical violation is a failure to properly maintain your trust accounting. Because the funds in your IOLTA account are not yours, it is absolutely imperative under TRPC Rule 1.15 that you accurately maintain this account. In fact, in order to participate in the IOLTA trust program, your bank must agree to report directly to the Board of Professional Responsibility any overdraft and/or dishonored instruments written from your IOLTA account. 

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Accepting Credit Cards

There are numerous options that will permit you to accept credit cards for payments. As you examine your options, be sure to consider equipment costs, fees, and long-term contracts. The law has also now changed such that you may be permitted to pass along the transaction fee that you incur for processing a client’s credit card payment to that client.


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Law Office Finance and Budgeting

A solo practice can be the very definition of “feast or famine.” You must be diligent in preparing for slow months.  Here are a few general tips for finance and budgeting:

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