Bar mandates ethics school for most disciplined attorneys

If an attorney declines to represent a potential client, he should do so in writing. Attorneys and clients do not think alike. Fee agreements should include a request that clients notify their lawyer of a change of address within 10 days. Don’t assume anything. These pieces of advice are among the myriad ways lawyers can avoid the State Bar’s discipline system. Offered by Dominique Snyder, a senior bar prosecutor and ethics expert, they are presented as part of a bar course called “Ethics School Highlights.”

Ethics school, a requirement for nearly every attorney disciplined by the bar, lasts seven hours. With continuing education credit thrown in as a bonus, the highlights class is a bargain: at one hour, Snyder describes it as a cross between Evelyn Wood speed reading and Reader’s Digest.

“Ethics problems are very much like locomotives,” Snyder says. “If you can see the train down the tracks, you can get out of the way. If you don’t see the train coming, it will run you down.”

Because most of the complaints clients make about lawyers have a certain sameness, Snyder focuses on three key areas — formation issues (how a fiduciary relationship is created), client screening issues, and fee agreements.

She warns lawyers to be careful what they say in casual conversations. Citing Miller v. Metzinger (1979), she tells attorneys that when a person seeking legal advice consults an attorney and receives that advice, a fiduciary relationship is established regardless of whether a fee agreement is signed, money is received or the attorney agrees to the representation.

A recurring theme of attorney-client problems is that they do not think alike. Attorneys are taught to be goal-oriented, Snyder says. “But have you ever gotten a fabulous result for your client and still had them angry at you?” she asks. “So it’s not about winning. From a client’s point of view, it’s about their relationship with you.”

When deciding whether to accept someone as a client, Snyder says lawyers should look for danger signals: The client has had other attorneys. If you’re substituting in, find out why. Warning that clients often have unspoken expectations, Snyder tells attorneys to take the time to ascertain a client’s true agenda as well as his expectations of the representation.

She also suggested there are several forms of competency, the most obvious being knowledge of the law. Fiscal competency should take into account whether a lawyer is financially able to mount a case. Caseload competency is strictly a numbers game, but an attorney should be wary of spreading himself too thin.

Emotional competency is the ability to factor yourself into the equation. Snyder says attorneys should ask themselves, “Can I take this on and meet the client’s expectations?” If not, “Just say no,” she says. “You do yourself and your client a favor.”

Fee agreements can pose a minefield of ethical lapses, but when properly executed, they also can enhance an attorney-client relationship. Snyder suggests that a fee agreement can be an effective tool of communication and should be tailored to specific situations.

She recommends attorneys keep good records of basic client information, such as address, telephone number, alternative ways to contact the client, and DMV information.

Whatever you do, she says, return your clients’ telephone calls!