Share |

Practice Tips: Attorney Stress and Collateral Damage: Before Going Down the Drain, it's Better to Pull the Plug

Embedded Scribd iPaper - Requires Javascript and Flash Player
NEVADA LAWYER
FEBRUARY 2009
ATTORNEY STRESS AND COLLATERAL DAMAGE
BEFORE GOING DOWN THE DRAIN, IT’S BETTER TO PULL THE PLUG
BY PHIL PATTEE, ASSISTANT BAR COUNSEL, STATE BAR OF NEVADA
PRACTICE TIPS FROM BAR COUNSEL
There are only so many clients that a lawyer can endure during a career. The number is different for each lawyer, but it’s there. It’s a metaphorical wall, hiding somewhere along our career paths. Acknowledging the wall’s existence is invaluable. Knowing it’s lurking out there might allow you to bump it only slightly. Ignore it and you risk slamming into it head-first, which usually makes a big mess. In the Office of Bar Counsel, we see what happens to attorneys who hit the wall, who burn out from taking too many clients. The attorney is often a sole practitioner, and the stresses of running a law practice only add to the problem. Anybody running a business will tell you that the biggest headache about running the business is running the business. Lawyers are no different. Attorneys-incommand are bookkeepers, creditors, accountants, process servers and legal secretaries. When the business-related tasks are completed, Mr. or Ms. Sole Practitioner can get around to being an attorney. An already stressed-out attorney with onetoo-many clients usually becomes a formerly good lawyer who can’t pick up a file, who can’t return a client’s phone call. Soon the ethical violations begin piling up regarding diligence,1 communication2 and terminating representation.3 And it usually follows that when the state bar gets involved, the attorney ignores investigation letters from the Office of Bar Counsel and thereby violates even more ethical rules.4 A better solution is to recognize the looming problem and make a change. Take a break if possible, change jobs if necessary. For me, I knew the wall was approaching after seven years in private practice. I hadn’t reached my individual too-many-clients number, my personal wall, but I knew it was out there. It was waiting for me to collide with it. I had done a few years as a prosecutor in San Diego before opening my practice doing criminal defense. Business was good, but the process was tough. You
wouldn’t believe the incredible amount of time spent running a business while juggling court appearances. The best part of being a lawyer, of course, is being a lawyer. It’s fun going to court, arguing whatever, resolving cases, doing trials. Doing business-related paperwork is a drag. And dealing with clients can be the worst. So, after about seven years, I started formulating an escape plan. Reduce the caseload, thereby allowing a quickand-easy closing of the practice. I turned away clients, especially those that I knew would be problematic. I soon identified the job I wanted. Although it took almost a year, I got the job that I still have, put San Diego in the rear-view mirror, and didn’t look back. I closed my practice pursuant to ethical guidelines and left those headaches behind. Unfortunately, other attorneys aren’t so lucky and don’t see the wall approaching. They don’t make any changes and, in fact, don’t even try. So when the state bar gets involved, usually all that remains is the smoldering remains of a once-thriving law practice and an attorney who’s in trouble. If you know an attorney in trouble, reach out and try to help. If you’re the attorney, ask for help. Slow down, change direction. Save yourself and help your clients. In the Office of Bar Counsel, all of our attorneys have been in private practice. We’ve all had clients. We all understand. Calling us and asking for guidance is better than plowing ahead, especially when we all know that the wall is lurking somewhere out there.
1 2 3 4 Rule of Professional Conduct 1.3. RPC 1.4. RPC 1.16. RPC 8.1(b).
PHIL PATTEE is Assistant Bar Counsel for the State Bar of Nevada. He worked for 10 years as a prosecutor and defense attorney in San Diego before joining the state bar in 2001. Prior to attending law school, he worked for 10 years as a newspaper reporter, including five years of covering the police and state District Court beats for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
43

Published under a Creative Commons License By attribution, non-commercial
AttachmentSize
NevLawyer_Feb_2009_Practice_Tips.pdf212.6 KB