What, me worry?
You already have a lot to worry about as a legal professional; let me just toss ‘Conflict of Interest’ onto the pile. This area of risk management is routinely undervalued by smaller firms and solo practitioners. The refrain we hear continually is “we already know all of our clients, past and present! There’s never been any conflict before, why would we need a formal system to vet prospective clients before engagement?”
Conflict of Interest can sneak up and bite anyone.
In the world of professional liability insurance, ‘conflict of interest’ claims are the equivalent of dog bite cases. As any plaintiff attorney or insurance claims adjuster will advise, a dog bite case is almost never defensible…it amounts to ‘absolute liability’ irrespective of circumstances. Conflict of Interest allegations in professional liability are similar. Even the appearance of a conflict can spark a long and expensive process. All just to establish whether a perceived conflict was, in fact, NOT a conflict or that it was inconsequential in its effect. Your insurer may prevail at some point on one or both these points but that’s a long and expensive hill to climb. And it might interest you to know that state bar grievance committees seem to reserve a special resentment for 2 areas: allegations of conflict of interest, and defalcation.
The Good News: A little extra effort can mean a lot more security.
It’s imperative that private practitioners establish an iron-clad protocol to avoid even the perception of a conflict. That’s easier said than done, I realize. You need to capture all the names and demographic information on all parties in each and every case. That means not only your client and any adverse parties, but witnesses, family members and others with information sensitive to your case. And you need a way to plow through all of these names in a detailed search pre-enrollment for every new client AND for the other parties tangential to the new matter. It gets harder! You need to do this for all cases before you take them in, then continually update as the case ensues. AND you even need to do it for matters where you end up declining representation. Turns out, you may be considered compromised just by listening to the details of a possible representation.
Fortunately, law practice software can help. I’m not sure how anyone can practice these days without a software product that will augment Conflict of Interest avoidance. Of course, buying the software is just the first step. All attorneys and staff in your firm must understand the importance of updating and maintaining the data base. After all, any database is only as good as the information that actually gets recorded.
Let us know in the comments if you’ve found a particularly robust software to fill this need in your firm.