Helping lawyers correct their bad habits

by Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Lawyers who become targets of malpractice claims or ethics charges frequently suffer from sloppy management of their law practices.

Janean Stadler Just makes a living correcting their bad habits.

As an ombudsman between attorneys and a large malpractice insurance carrier, Just conducts risk management reviews for firms which either do not qualify for coverage or pay exorbitant premiums.

Her goal, she says, is to help firms "develop safe, wise law practice management techniques to stay out of trouble."

Just says law schools do not adequately prepare attorneys for how to run a practice, and those who do not work in a large firm often are forced to learn from their mistakes. That's a costly proposition which harms both clients and attorneys, she says.

"Too often, I've seen lawyers who haven't a clue why they got into trouble," Just said.

To address the problem, the State Bar's committee on professional liability insurance funds a malpractice prevention program with money from its insurance program. A portion of the money pays for Just's free, confidential risk management reviews and the bar's Law Office Management Assistance (LOMA) program, another free service to help lawyers manage their practice.

"California is unique in putting its money behind this commitment," Just says.

Since 1991, she has conducted more than 100 reviews, each tailored for the individual firm and practice area.

Just begins with a look at office procedures in accepting clients, intake, the initial interview and conflict check. The review includes file maintenance, billing, documentation, an evaluation of MCLE compliance and an assessment of whether the practice is restricted to areas in which the attorney is competent.

She concludes with an evaluation of how a file is closed, file retention and destruction policies, client satisfaction and attorney-staff relations.

Just produces a confidential report and submits it to the firm only. She also follows up to ascertain whether corrections have been made.

The risk management audit program is open to all California attorneys, but small firm and sole practitioners are the principal beneficiaries.

In addition to the risk management reviews, Just conducts MCLE classes twice a year, offering a "firm fitness check-up."

For further information, contact Paul E. Dorroh at Kirke-Van Orsdel Inc. at 415/296-2515.