A new year often presents opportunities to set obtainable goals. This week’s article provides practical tips in five areas that may help law firms and lawyers successfully improve their practices this year. As always, please reach out to us with any questions.

Failure becomes inevitable because individuals aim too high without a properly thought-out plan to implement their goals. But just as the practice of law and the rules that govern the profession are constantly evolving, attorneys similarly can find areas in their professional lives where they can make improvements in 2016.

Here are some suggested changes and some tips for achieving them.

Update your docketing system

Time is the most important element in the life of a lawyer because attorneys live and die by the calendar. However, when it comes to docketing important deadlines, attorneys may fall short in establishing a foolproof system to prevent time-related errors. Missing a deadline or failing to attend to client interests or demands are easy targets for malpractice plaintiffs, even where no injury or damage results.

The rules of professional conduct attempt to ensure that attorneys safeguard the interests of their clients and not neglect matters entrusted to them. Yet even the most careful attorneys may inadvertently fail to comply with a deadline, particularly if a systematic approach is not applied. By adopting a concrete system for docketing, attorneys are much more likely to prevent time-related errors.

Docketing mistakes often result from attorneys relying on their email system to manage every aspect of their professional lives. Instead of written documents and hard-copy calendars containing fewer than a dozen deadlines, attorneys now receive hundreds of email communications, all containing time sensitive demands. In that way, time management in the electronic communication world, requiring the timely response to deadlines, is an old problem but with a new and ever-expanding dimension.

To avoid such errors, attorneys should employ and then re-evaluate their calendar or docket control system. An old system that is not working needs to be replaced, not ignored. Effective docket control systems should help, not hinder, the practice of law. If a docket control system is not doing that, ditch it—now.

Several factors should be considered before implementing any system to prevent other time-related errors. Attorneys should pick a system that is user-friendly, accurate and reliable to ensure that deadlines are properly calendared and to minimize the risk of error.

Stop using the email inbox as a calendar tool

Another attorney bad habit is the use of an email inbox as a calendar tool. Before emails, many attorneys used the "pile" system as a reminder system. If a file was in a pile of documents on the credenza, then the file needed to be looked at sometime this week; on the desk meant that the file needed attention today or tomorrow; and on the attorney's chair meant that it required action immediately.

The pile system was fraught with risk because it was ineffective. When things were the most frantic and an attorney needed the most help from a reminder system, the piles were so big and so scattered that they were of little help.

Today, the email inbox is the modern version of the old "pile system," fraught with similar peril. With no physical limitation on how big it can get, an inbox can store large quantities of emails that can go unchecked. A busy attorney can inadvertently miss a deadline because he or she delayed in reading an email.

There are two solutions to avoid missing deadlines for attorneys dependent on email and the inbox: adopt a system for reviewing, handling and foldering messages in the inbox; and create a self-imposed numerical limit for the number of emails.

Make sure your insurance coverage is up to date

Legal malpractice insurance is a necessity, but not one that most attorneys like to think about (unless you are an insurance lawyer specializing in professional liability).

Attorneys should not wait until a claim has been made to read their professional liability policies for the first time. By then, it is too late. The best practice is to review legal malpractice policies during the immediate two months before renewal to identify any possible issues and provide adequate time to consider and incorporate adjustments.

Often, an attorney or law firm will add a new practice area and fail to check to see whether the policy excludes coverage for claims that may arise in that new area. Attorneys should review their policy before every renewal to ensure that they have insurance coverage for all their practice areas.

Employ proper tech security for mobile devices

The use of modern technology creates challenges for lawyers, who have a professional duty to maintain client confidences and secrets.

To ensure that secrets are kept safe while using mobile devices, law firms and attorneys should devise, adopt and implement effective protocols, practices and procedures specifically addressed to maintain secrecy.

For mobile phones, law firms and attorneys should use programs that allow them to "remote wipe" data from their devices in the event the devices are lost or stolen. Other effective approaches are to use programs that ensure that smartphone data is encrypted, enforce strong password protection, and consider employing features such as GPS tracking and secure file sharing.

Attorneys should also try to avoid using unsecure public wireless networks when accessing sensitive and/or confidential client information.

Increase and tighten up use of engagement letters

Engagement letters are important because they set out the parameters of the attorney-client relationship. It is important to be clear in engagement letters and, where appropriate, update them or prepare new ones for additional matters.

When individual attorneys use a general engagement letter, such an approach can suggest that the attorney undertakes to advise the client on any possible legal issue that arises, far beyond the actual intended scope of the representation.

To avoid such risks, the engagement letter should clearly identify the client, the scope of representation, the duration of the representation, and the fees to be charged for the firm's services. Where a new matter is sufficiently distinct from the prior or ongoing representation, it is best to draft a separate engagement letter for the new matter.

As published by American Lawyer Media