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Hot Topics in LOMAS (FAQ)

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1. Should I use time and billing software? What kind?
2. How do I start up my own practice?
3. Do I have to have trust accounts? How do I set them up?
4. Should I form a professional service corporation? Do I have to?
5. What is a good calendaring system for my office?
6. What kinds of computers should I buy?
7. Where can I find sample administrative documents?
8. How long should I keep closed files?
9. What does the term "Of Counsel" mean? How do I become "of counsel" to a firm?
10. What steps should I take to be certain that confidential information has been removed from computers and digital photocopiers before we dispose of them?
11. I am hiring the first employee for my law firm. Is there a step-by-step guide so I can be sure that I complete and submit all the required paperwork?
12. I Am a Solo Practitioner. How can I keep my practice going if I want to go on vacation, or, need to be away for a short time?

You may also be interested in:
Trust Accounting FAQ

Actually, the most commonly asked question at the Law Office Management Assistance Service is probably " What do you guys do?" As a way of answering that question, we thought we'd provide a run-down of questions we are typically asked in the course of a working day. If you, or your staff, have a similar question, don't hesitate to write or e-mail LOMAS. (These questions are listed in no particular order.)

1. Should I use time and billing software? What kind?

Attorneys who have not yet automated their time tracking, expense accounting, and invoice generation should certainly strongly consider doing so. For an attorney who bills by the hour and has several hundred open case files, the benefits in increased accuracy and time saved are obvious. But we encourage even those who bill on a contingency basis, or have only a few dozen open files, to reflect on some of the advantages to computerized time and billing. First of all, a good program provides a database with a wealth of information about clients and attorneys that you can use in many different ways -- for billing and payment histories (should you take on more work for this person?); for mass mailings and other marketing (most programs generate labels); for conflict checking, or for management and profit planning (which attorney is generating the most revenue? Which practice areas are? What is the cost/revenue ratio on that matter?). The possibilities, with a good program, are almost limitless. Secondly, the flexibility provided by customized and detailed invoices can make the difference between a client who ignores a bill and one who pays it.

Which program to buy? This is a very difficult question for us to answer, as there are several hundred programs on the market that track attorney time and produce bills, and at least several dozen of these are quite good. What you should buy depends on a multitude of factors, including your budget, whether you want an integrated financial package (i.e., one that includes not only time and billing but general ledger, check writing, and/or payroll as well), your need for a specific feature not found in all programs (like a pop- up timer), and so on. LOMAS welcomes inquiries, but rather than giving you the name of a "should buy" we generally talk with you to determine your budget and requirements and then suggest several packages you may want to investigate further.

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2. How do I start up my own practice?

Bar requirements for those opening a law practice are minimal. Most attorneys find their concerns relate to practical considerations such as budgeting, marketing, space planning, accounting (including trust accounting), technology needs, setting up a client intake system, management of personnel, and so forth. LOMAS provides many resources available from
www.floridabar.org/lomas. Checklists, forms, publications, CLE DVDs are just some of the resources available to you.
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3. Do I have to have trust accounts? How do I set them up?

It's theoretically possible that an attorney who limits his or her practice to work where no up-front costs are involved could get by without a trust account and not violate the rules of ethics. An attorney who did only contracted research for another attorney might fall into this category. But even research attorneys or government attorneys sometimes take in occasional outside work or do favors for friends. If you receive client funds or other property in a fiduciary capacity, you must be prepared upon that receipt to treat the money or property as "in trust". For a fuller discussion of the rules and a graphic demonstration of their application LOMAS produced a training DVD called “Maintaining a Trustworthy Trust Account.” If you've just got a quick question about your trust account, feel free to contact LOMAS; we can usually provide you with the answer.

IOTA forms needed to open a trust account at a financial institution are available on the LOMAS webpage. Additionally, there are links to the relevant Rules and Ethics Opinions.
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4. Should I form a professional service corporation? Do I have to?

In recent years, banks have become fussier about demanding corporate status from their business clients, and so many new attorneys starting up a trust account have been told by their bank representatives that they "must" incorporate. While this may accurately reflect that particular bank's position (although another bank might not have the same requirement), LOMAS wants to emphasize that there is no Florida Bar requirement that practicing attorneys incorporate. Attorneys should decide to incorporate only after consultation with their tax advisers to ascertain the repercussions, financial and otherwise, of that action. Look for the excellent article “What Entity Should I Choose for My Law Firm” under the Starting Your Own Practice Resources link on the LOMAS page.
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5. What is a good calendaring system for my office?

LOMAS recognizes that one of the most frequent causes of attorney discipline is poor calendaring, resulting in missed filings and court appearances, overlooked client appointments, and sloppy, rushed work. We will work with attorneys and their staffs to set up manual or computerized docketing systems that track appointments and deadlines. If your budget is tight or your office is small, we can give you instructions for setting up a simple 3" x 5" index card system that can adequately remind you of important events. We can also point towards a variety of computerized docketing systems (some quite low in cost) that provide calendaring, automatic "ticklers", case planning, group scheduling, sophisticated report options, and more. We do suggest computerized docketing where at all possible, since it is easier, more reliable, and generally offers features that simply can't be duplicated in a manual system, like keyword searches or automatic ticklers. In addition, many malpractice carriers offer discounts to attorneys who used computerized docketing. Check with yours to see if a switch could save you money.
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6. What kinds of computers should I buy?

Again, this is the sort of question that can have no one right answer and so has to be answered on an individual basis. LOMAS staff subscribe to several trade magazines in both the computer industry and the related and growing area of law office technology and can offer up-to-date advice on such commonly asked topics as: Can I use an Apple Mac in my office? Should I buy from a mail-order company? Can I get by with a dual core processor or do I need something more powerful? What about Windows XP or Vista? How about Windows 7? Do our computers need to be networked? Which network is best?
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7. Where can I find sample administrative documents?

LOMAS has available both online and on CD an Administrative Forms Handbook that contains 110 samples of such documents as a partnership agreement, by-laws for a shareholder agreement, and fee agreements. Look for the Forms and Checklists section on the LOMAS page to review a form and download it, or use a Materials Order Form to order all the forms on a CD.
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8. How long should I keep closed files?

There is no one safe answer that applies to all files, regardless of importance or contents. An attorney has a continuing responsibility for client property that he or she holds, and that extends to original client documents that the attorney may for some reason have in his/her possession. Therefore, unless the attorney is willing to guarantee the safekeeping of these original documents, at the outset of the case, they should be copied and returned to the client, with the attorney retaining copies. All material in files needs to be analyzed for importance and dealt with accordingly. Often at the close of a matter much of what is in the file is duplicated elsewhere (copies of related briefs or opinions) or may simply be "scratch" notes, and this can be destroyed. Material that might be helpful for future research may be copied or moved to a "brief bank" location. The remainder must be analyzed in terms of such things as whether the matter may re-open (when do all applicable statutes of limitation expire?), malpractice, statutory or business reasons for retaining information longer than usual, and so on.


While the Florida Bar has no official guidelines for retention and destruction in place that apply to all files (other than regulations that stipulate trust accounting records and contingency fee agreements and closing statements must be maintained for a minimum of six years), we can offer considerable assistance to you in constructing your firm's policy. (First piece of advice: make sure you have one, and that it is in writing.) For more information on file retention, please read "When May I Destroy My Old Files?"
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9. What does the term "Of Counsel" mean? How do I become "of counsel" to a firm?

The term "Of Counsel" is now used in so many contexts that there is no one standard or acceptable definition within the legal community. Historically, the term was assigned to retired senior partners as an honorific connoting availability to consult with the partners where their counsel or experience was needed. Such a limited connotation is no longer useful. For a variety of reasons, the term is now evoked to describe 1) part- time relationships; 2) retired partners; 3) probationary partners-to-be; 4) permanent associates. Some questions that come to LOMAS regarding of counsel arrangements, such as "Is the of counsel an employee?" and "Can we have multiple of counsel relationships?", are more properly handled by the Bar's ethics hotline (800) 235-8619.
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10. What steps should I take to be certain that confidential information has been removed from computers and digital photocopiers before we dispose of them?

Confidential client information and sensitive business data can be safely “scrubbed” (removed by using wipe programs or ‘shredders’) from the hard drives of digital photocopiers. To truly erase data, you need to write over it. Simply deleting files or reformatting the drive won't do. Luckily, plenty of free and inexpensive wipe programs (also known as shredders) can cover the data with zeroes or random patterns, making it unreadable by data-restoration software. There are several good products available, such as “Infosweep” at www.infosweep.com, for scrubbing data off the hard drives of digital photocopiers. There is an even larger selection of “scrubber” products available to wipe data off computer hard drives such as Wipe Drive (www.whitecanyon.com). Always check with your technology support vendor to be sure you are using the latest version of the software tool you choose.
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11. I am hiring the first employee for my law firm. Is there a step-by-step guide so I can be sure that I complete and submit all the required paperwork?

Yes! The best step-by-step guide for hiring your first employee is provided by the Small Business Administration External Link (SBA).
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12. I Am a Solo Practitioner. How can I keep my practice going if I want to go on vacation, or, need to be away for a short time?

Planned Absences

Everyone deserves a vacation. If you have a solo practice, how do you manage a few short vacations during the year? How do you keep your practice going? What if you have to be away for an extended time, either for a personal illness or for some other reason? Are there different ways to cover a planned versus an unplanned absence?

There are two types of solo practitioners: ones with staff and ones without staff. This distinction makes a difference in how you handle planned and unplanned absences.

If you have staff, s/he can e-mail your phone messages, scan your mail, and file it in your directory. If you have remote access to your computer system (e.g., GoToMyPC), you are always in touch with your office. While you are on vacation, your office is open, but most work is put on hold until you return.

Lawyers in solo practice, as well as many other types of professionals, choose to close the office when they are on vacation. Arranging to go on vacation is a challenge, but not one that is insurmountable.

Every solo practitioner should develop a relationship with another lawyer who can function as your backup during short vacations or in the event of a short-term emergency. If you handle more than one type of law, such as elder law and social security law, you might require more than one lawyer to handle emergencies in your absence. This lawyer may be, or may not be, your Inventory Attorney.

When planning a vacation or brief leave of absence, be sure to take these steps:

1. Review all files and prepare a summary of each matter. The file list should include all client contact information. If you do not have remote access to your files, leave several copies (digital and paper) of this information in your office, but also take a copy with you on a flash drive.
2. If you are one of those lucky lawyers who leave on vacation the same time every year, you can incorporate this information into your representation letters and website. If not, you must communicate your plans well in advance. This includes clients and key vendors.
3. Block vacation time on your calendar so that you, or your staff, do not inadvertently schedule meetings, appearances, or deadlines, or accept new work during this period. If you have another lawyer who will watch over your practice during your absence, make certain that s/he has also blocked this time off his/her calendar as a period that they may not be away!
4. Send reminder letters to clients and key vendors at least 30 days prior to your departure. In the letter, be sure to provide the name and contact information for the lawyer who has agreed to cover emergencies.
5. Notify your Inventory Attorney of your plans in the event you are delayed in returning to your practice and your backup lawyer is no longer available.

Unplanned Absences

A well-thought out plan brings honor to your profession, protects your clients, and can save you and your loved ones from a difficult burden. Be sure you have appointed an Inventory Attorney. Visit the Bar’s website section on the role of the Inventory Attorney:

Put your plan in writing. Include potential situations where you wish your Inventory Attorney to assume control of your practice, as well as potential situations where your inventory is not needed, but a temporary office closure is warranted. Identify who should be notified and how, including clients, courts, other attorneys, service providers, and so on. Your plan should address your professional responsibilities to clients and office management aspects of your practice.

The firm’s representation letter might include this provision: “Our firm’s objective is to provide you with excellent legal services and to protect your interests in the event of my unexpected death, disability, or unexpected absence for any reason. Therefore, I have arranged with another attorney to assist you should I be unable to do so. If that were to happen, my assistant or the assisting attorney would contact you and provide you with information about how to proceed.”

Do not forget these important steps in your plan to cover unplanned absences:

· Prepare a list of current, active clients, courts, opposing lawyers, regulatory agencies, banks, and suppliers to notify promptly of your absence.
· Prepare a list of closed client files, their location, and how to access them.
· Determine the fee arrangement between you and your Inventory Attorney.
· Determine the circumstances under which access to your trust account should be given to your Inventory Attorney and other important backup help, such as your accountant.
· Provide access to and passwords for your office procedure manual, calendar, contact information, email, voice mail, and business and accounting records. Therefore, update procedures and passwords on a regular basis.
· Provide information about bank accounts and trust accounts, so that your Inventory Attorney, and perhaps your accountant, can access them as necessary.
· Designate an accountant or third party to work under the direction of your Inventory Attorney to help with billing and collections, and long and short-term accounts payable. This means you will have to maintain an up-to-date accounts receivable and accounts payable schedule with appropriate contact information.
· Provide information and access to your post office box, safe deposit box, office safe, and locked file cabinets.
· Make a will or estate plan, so that decision-making authority over your estate and your law firm can be coordinated between your Personal Representative and Inventory Attorney.

Regardless of whether you are contemplating a much-needed vacation, or are worried about your clients and your law practice in the event of an unforeseen disaster, it is critical that every lawyer have a plan to cover voluntary absences and a disaster plan to cover unplanned absences.
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[Revised: 12-04-2013]