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Avoiding Disputes - Client Intake/Matter Screening

Client Intake & Matter Screening

The most dangerous people to you (from a risk management perspective) are your own clients. These are the people you are charged with serving. The best time to protect yourself against “that client” or “that file” (you know – the one above all others that you have anxiety about) is before you take the file.

First, is the dull but necessary practice of running a conflict search. The proper identification and resolution of conflicts of interest are major concerns facing practitioners today. It is incredibly difficult to defend a professional liability claim against you where a conflict of interest exists. Judges and juries do not like them. Even if you think they are not a problem, the moment the slightest thing goes wrong, “conflicts” become a big problem.

To avoid conflict problems, before permitting a client or prospective client to provide confidential information regarding a prospective representation, the names of relevant parties and other public facts concerning the matter should be run through a conflicts system. The system can be very basic. In this day and age virtually every practitioner has some kind of document management or file management system. And all of these have search capabilities. (1) Spend a few minutes searching the relevant names through your current and old files. If you are lucky enough to have one, train your secretary or support staff to do this for you. Make this a simple, but routine part of your practice. Better than that, have this part of your practice reduced to writing, i.e. memorialize the steps you or your secretary go through for each new matter and you now have a clear, formal written conflict checking and resolution procedure.

If a conflict exists, it must be identified, and where possible, resolved through the use of an appropriate conflict waiver agreement. Conflict issues must be addressed before proceeding with the matter and prior to deciding if it is in the best interests of both the client and the practitioner to take on this matter.

If no conflict is present, a practitioner can proceed to decide if they wish to take on the new Client. When deciding to take on a new assignment, again ask yourself: “is this something I want to do/a person I want to work with?” Here is a short list of basic “self-audit” risk management questions that a practitioner should ask:

  1. What are the client’s expectations?
  2. Are the prospective client’s expectations reasonable?
  3. Has the scope of the practitioner’s representation been made clear?
  4. Is it likely that this client will blame the practitioner if things go wrong? If so, should the client be accepted?
  5. Does the practitioner need to protect itself from risk exposure by first investigating the prospective client, the prospective client’s background and history, and their objectives before it agrees to the representation?
  6. Has this client had any past conflicts with practitioners, including the commencement of litigation against past practitioners?
  7. Has this client paid all of his expenses to date and all accounts are otherwise settled?
  8. Have other practitioners refused to take on this client or have other Practitioners withdrawn from their representation of the Client?
  9. How will the practitioner be able to manage this client’s expectations?
  10. If the client is accepted, what resources/personnel should be involved to handle this relationship?
  11. What does the practitioner need to do throughout the life of the engagement to maintain clear and open communications with the client so that the scope of the responsibilities and decisions are made clear?

The answers to these questions will help determine whether a new client poses an unreasonable risk to the practitioner. See also the risk management “checklist” we have formulated. We loaded the checklist online so that it can be updated with suggestions from professional fiduciaries. Please email ajones@fkblaw.com and/or larry.hilton@dominioninsurance.com with any such suggestions.

(1) Various specialized software is also currently available to search all active and closed files to ensure up to date conflicts awareness.