While much that is written about malpractice claims is applicable to all lawyers, solo attorneys should also understand the unique malpractice dangers of their practice. Many solo practitioners operate under the misconception that their close relationship with clients insulates them from malpractice claims. This is simply not true. In order to protect against these unique risks solo practitioners should consider the following issues.
As a solo attorney you have complete control over your practice. However this freedom comes with responsibility. Solos should take extra steps to prepare for disasters--personal or otherwise. In order to prepare, solos should consider reciprocal arrangements with trustworthy attorneys. In order to facilitate any coverage issues, solos should keep clear records about the mundane, calendars, passwords, addresses, to the critical, case status, court dates and billing. While family members can serve as a resource, family members will not understand the unique attorney-client relationship. It is far better to find an appropriate attorney support person before disaster strikes.
All lawyers form a personal relationship with their clients. Indeed, a large part of client acquisition depends on building a relationship. However, the nature of the solo practice may blur the lines between friend and client. This is not to say that friends cannot become clients. Rather, it is doubly important to set clear expectations when working with friends.
A second aspect of dealing with the dangers of personal relationships involves the conflicts check. A solo attorney may be approached by two friends opening a business or selling a business to each other. It is the duty of the attorney to explain and discuss this matter with each client. In addition, the attorney should memorialize any discussion in writing. Finally, there are numerous ethics rules regarding getting informed consent. Risking malpractice in order to maintain a friendship is never advisable.
Acting as Scrivener
Many solo attorneys begin building a practice by acting as a scrivener. The task of a scrivener may seem simple, but acting as scrivener has malpractice implications. An attorney scrivener should review ethics rules very carefully. Section 2.2 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct should be a starting point in your research when agreeing to become a scrivener.
Often many attorneys assume working as a solo will mean less work. In one sense, being in control does give an attorney more control. However, the pressure of building and maintaining a practice is often overwhelming. As a result, a solo attorney must be wiling to say no. By taking on too much, an attorney may risk malpractice. It is far better to say no and focus on already existing clients than to take on too many clients and short-change them all. In light of recent malpractice claims, simply saying no is not enough. For an attorney, no must involve written confirmation. It is important to have documentation to make sure both the attorney and the potential client are on the same page.
Being a solo attorney presents unique challenges, but, as long as the solo is aware of these challenges, it can be an amazing experience.