By Candice A. Garcia-Rodrigo
Every young lawyer comes out of law school with the hopes of making a difference in the justice system and their local communities. Studying case law and black letter law informs the young attorney that there are rules to abide by, for which there are consequences if not followed. What professors fail to mention to these young attorneys with altruistic and inspiring visions is that the most important part of practicing law is to “CYA.” That is, “Cover Your Ass.”
“PAPERING” THE FILE
When I first entered the legal profession, the number one rule I learned was the significance of “papering” your client file. If you speak with a client, write a memorandum or notes detailing the conversation and add it to the file. Depending on the client, it may be necessary to confirm the conversation in a formal letter. When first learning how to balance case files and properly manage time, this may feel like a ridiculous and unnecessary chore. However, if a week, month or year later, the client makes claims that you did or did not give him or her certain advice or warn of risks, then you will be glad you sent that “CYA” letter to the client.
Too often you will find the client remembering your conversation differently or claiming you gave certain advice that you would not have given. The best course of action is to CYA soon after the time of the meeting or conference, rather than scrambling years later to piece together the details of your interaction with the client.
Additionally, after a court hearing, sending an “Advisal” letter to the client is necessary to CYA. This is true whether or not the client attended the hearing. Typically, the client will be tense, nervous, anxious and completely confused. She will not recall what happened or what you said in court after the hearing. The moment you return to your office, sit down and write out your Advisal letter confirming everything that happened at the hearing, the advice you gave the client, the “needs” for the next hearing, and confirm any other aspect of your conversation or strategy posed. If the client did not appear, then this is the opportunity to inform the client of what occurred and the next steps.
While writing this letter, you may come up with additional “to do” lists for other staff members or yourself on this case. Again, CYA. The letter will be used as a future reference to yourself and the client. It will detail what happened at the hearing, and the advice you gave the client.
Another important way to CYA is to send clients “Introduction” and “Status” letters. Again, depending on the area of practice, an Introduction letter informs clients of their duties, responsibilities, and lists required documents or homework assignments to complete for the attorney to commence work. The worst thing to hear from a client is “You never told me that.”
Finally, it is recommended to “touch” the file at least once per month. The attorney should review the file, the court information online if it is a court action, and send the client a “Status” letter. Status letters keep the young attorney in constant contact with the client, serves to protect both the client and attorney from a future dispute, and most importantly, fulfills the attorney’s ethical duties to keep the client informed.
The key to a successful practice is to “CYA” — yours and the client’s. That may not have been taught in law school, but it is a necessary lawyering skill.
Candice A. Garcia-Rodrigo is the founding partner at Rodrigo Law Firm, PC in San Bernardino, California, and practices estate planning, probate and business law.