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As many of you know, you can never underestimate the importance of good legal support staff.
A skilled legal assistant makes for happier clients, happier lawyers and, often, a better bottom line. With this in mind, you must also empower your legal support staff with the knowledge they need to succeed.
The Law Society of Alberta’s Code of Conduct sets out lawyers’ obligations to clients, courts, opposing counsel and the public. All members of the Law Society must fulfill the obligations outlined in the Code.
It is important to have your legal assistant read the Code and understand how it relates to their duties. This knowledge helps him or her implement your office processes that are tied to your Code obligations. It provides a better understanding of your expectations and why you have those expectations. It also enhances some of the key principles of law office ethics, including:
Confidentiality is a cornerstone of legal ethics. Under the Code, lawyers are obligated to ensure the confidentiality of every client (Code 3.3-1 & Commentary). Legal assistants are also required to ensure client confidentiality. It is important to develop clear protocols regarding securing and maintaining client information both within the office and beyond.
Competency includes knowing your skillset and those of your legal assistant. His or her experience and knowledge can determine the level of supervision you are required to provide. Clear instructions and communication are imperative. A discussion with your legal assistant can help clarify your respective roles, and capacity. Setting ground rules will help establish expectations and facilitates working toward mutual objectives.
There are, however, certain tasks that should not be delegated to a legal assistant (see, specifically, Code 6.1-3). These include (generally and with certain exceptions), exercising judgment in:
- Accepting new files
- Negotiating legal matters with another lawyer or third party
- Approving/signing legal documents
- Advising on the merits of a file
- Accepting, imposing or amending trust conditions or undertakings.
Finally, legal assistants must conduct themselves in a professional manner. Your legal assistant represents your firm in all interactions with clients, opposing counsel and other parties. These include written correspondence (including email), telephone conversations and face-to-face contact. Policies can be implemented and may also extend to attire and grooming. Having in place scripts for telephone attendance, forms for email replies and protocols for email engagement can also be helpful.
Conversely, legal assistants must be treated professionally by other lawyers, clients and the public. If possible, ensure that dealings with people who behave inappropriately toward your legal assistant are raised and addressed.
Your legal assistant can help develop systems to ensure compliance with the Code and the development of a satisfying and successful practice.
Written by: Donna Moore, Legal Counsel, Practice Management