There once was a man whose house had a leaky roof. When asked why he didn’t fix it, he said that on rainy days he couldn’t because it was too wet to go up there. When asked why he didn’t fix it on a sunny day, he replied “Well, on those days my roof doesn’t leak does it?”
The time to look carefully at the holes in your practice is on the sunny days. Waiting until someone makes a complaint to the Law Society, or sues you, or some other crisis happens, means you are responding to those problems in the context of that crisis. Engaging the Law Society of Alberta’s Practice Management (formerly Practice Review) process is a way of shining a light on potential leaks before the rain comes. It’s like getting a home inspection or a mechanical inspection done before you buy a house or car.
I self-referred to the Practice Review program in 2004 on the tenth anniversary of my admission to the bar. I did not do it out of a concern about a particular problem. I had read that the ten year mark is a particularly dangerous time in terms of lawyers making mistakes leading to insurance claims and I thought it would be a good idea to have someone “look under the hood” of my practice. After all, I would do that with a ten year old car so why not be just as careful with my practice which I depend on to make a living, feed my children and pay my mortgage? To me it seemed like an obvious thing to do and, as a bonus, it’s free.
As I recall, the main advice I received was to ask for retainers more often. Also, at one point in time I had signed builders’ liens on behalf of my clients and realized shortly before going to Practice Review that this was not a good idea. I recall some discussion about that policy. The advice was free, it was painless, and even when the discussion was about “Keep doing what you’re doing on X” it was helpful to have that reinforcement.
As lawyers, a lot of us are afraid of being told we have been doing something wrong. It’s odd in a business where being right while advising our clients is essentially our stock in trade that we spend so little time seeking best practices or habits that might help us give good advice to our clients, make better use of our time, or make more money. As a profession we seem to be able to dish out advice, but not take it very well.
Have you ever tried to retrieve water that has gone down the drain? Of course not, because that would be crazy. Yet as a profession our approach to dealing with problems with lawyers’ practices is essentially that. We ignore the spiral of something going wrong and only act when we hear the last “glug” of a lawyer’s practice going down the drain. Practice Review is about plugging the hole before a practice goes down the drain. And the thing is: all practices have holes in them. There is no such thing as a perfectly watertight law practice. Your practice, my practice, and anyone’s can always do with some preventative maintenance.
To encourage best practices, we need to replace a “gotcha” culture – of catching other lawyers when they are in the wrong – with a “got your back” culture where we help troubled lawyers improve the way they do business. Practice Review is part of that culture shift. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for being vigilant about professional standards and for punishing those who need to be deterred. What Practice Review represents is a very wise, cost-effective goal of getting to the root cause of bad practice and preventing small problems from becoming big problems. An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure.
So, for those of you who see your colleagues having trouble staying afloat, please ask them to consider getting help. For those of you who are looking into the Practice Management program for yourselves, please give it a try. You have nothing to lose but your bad habits.
If you want more information on the Practice Management program, email or call 403.229.4750.
Glen Hickerson is a guest author for the Law Society. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Law Society of Alberta.