Navigating legal practice can resemble sailing on a stormy sea. An iceberg may threaten the strength and journey of a ship, similar to malpractice. By understanding the makeup of the iceberg you can better avoid it, and the same can be said for malpractice claims.
Errors in form or document submission rank among the top three mistakes that contribute to malpractice claims. This type of error often occurs in a practice that relies on submitting documents or forms for the client—e.g. intellectual property, immigration, real estate, tax, or business transactions.
We see this in practice when a miscommunication results in a paralegal recording an incorrect deed or an attorney missing key contract addendums. Another situation could be where an attorney lists an incorrect address for a client or beneficiary, which excludes them from notice. Similar mistakes significantly hamper the progress or outcome of the matter.
Avoiding the full mass of an iceberg requires knowing what is lurking beneath the surface and steering clear. You can navigate away from common mistakes when drafting and completing forms or documents in your office by creating thorough checklists, using updated templates, and conducting a regular process review.
1. Create Thorough ChecklistsIf your practice deals with frequent submissions of complex documents, consider creating a checklist for each matter type to ensure that every document is filed correctly. Checklists are one way to stay organized and track what has been submitted and where. They are also a useful resource when delegating tasks to staff members or new associates.
Creating a thorough checklist includes listing all documents, where to submit each one, any required attachments, and the order to submit them. Ask yourself, should it go to the agency’s headquarters or a local office? Do you need to send a copy to another department or party?
Additionally, your checklist should include the statute and deadline for each document. The statute may mention deadlines, which should also be on your checklist. Seeing the upcoming deadline can assist you in adding reminders to your calendar for better matter management. Be sure to regularly update the checklist following a legislative change.
2. Maintain Your TemplatesKeeping your document templates up to date is crucial, especially in areas where laws often change. Attorneys maintain their competency by being aware of and applying the latest regulations. Set aside time for an annual review to refresh all templates, including making revisions and removing outdated ones.
Avoid having multiple template versions floating around the office by keeping them in one central, easily accessed location. If someone can't find or open the template they need, they might rely on an inaccurate or outdated document. It could be rejected, and a rejected document or form can cause delays or jeopardize the client's matter.
Another issue when drafting documents or using forms is reusing them from previous clients. Your goal should be to reuse the template structure only, not personal client information. Store each template without any client-specific data. Neglecting to change details such as phone numbers or addresses of clients could breach client confidentiality and hinder your current client's case.
To maintain clean templates, save each document as a Word template (.dotx). This way, a new document will be created from the template each time you open it, and you can save any changes without modifying the original template.
3. Refresh Your Reviewing ProcessEvaluating and updating your drafting, editing, and proofreading procedures keeps your office vigilant. Your review process should catch all errors before a document is submitted, so edit carefully and efficiently. An efficient review process also gives your client a chance to check each document for errors.
If you review your staff’s drafts, or vice versa, ask them their opinion of the process. With staff input, you can outline the drafting journey to identify and edit any gaps in your process. This also increases your staff’s understanding of forms and pleadings.
If you don't have a staff member to edit your work, you'll need foolproof methods for your review. One method is to print your documents rather than reading them on the screen. Another option is to have Microsoft Word read your document aloud to you. You can do this in the “Review” menu tab under the Speech section by clicking “Read Aloud.”
Often, malpractice risks are more substantial than they appear, much like the hidden mass of an iceberg. Safely navigate around potential pitfalls by implementing these tips to enhance your office systems. By knowing the reason for a mistake, you are better able to spot and revise it in your own office. Don't let document or form errors sink your case.