For the Profession

WHAT IS PROFESSIONALISM?

As part of our work, we try to train others in the goal of professionalism.   What is professionalism?

It is providing our services in both an accessible manner, as well as in a professional context. We are governed by the Law Society of Ontario, which means there are rules of conduct that our profession must work with.  These rules are in place to protect the client, as well as to uphold a certain standard of service to our clients.  With modern innovation and technology, we have to be especially careful to ensure the basic principles of our rules of conduct are still followed.  It is vital that our clients walk away with a feeling they have been professionally attended to.

For example, we have expectations when we visit our family doctor.  We know who will be there, who has access to our personal information and how we can get a copy for our own records.  Technology has done some wonders for that profession, whereby health records are computerized and put into a practice management system and can be printed out on the spot.  An electronic signature is put in place to submit prescriptions to your favourite pharmacy.  Each time I visit my family physician, I attend the same office.  I am greeted by the same staff (with occasionally part-time staff) and get put into an examination room.  In each examination room, there is a computer that can be accessed by my doctor and her staff.  My file can be opened up to access recent test results, specialist reports, prescription lists and a clinical record where my visits are recorded.

At times, I met with my physician in a state of worry over health concerns.  For this reason, I value the fact that I can speak to her in confidence.  At this point, it is usually just the physician and myself in the room.  With my permission, the physician might bring in a nurse practitioner or an RPN for the purposes of accessing vaccines or delivering an injection, for example.

What Can Breach the Standards of Professionalism?

For example, I do not meet my doctor at an ‘office in a box’, where she rents an examining room for an hour at a time.  Henceforth, she brings her own computer and other equipment, only to lug it back home again at the end of the day.  Nor does anybody else enter the physician’s office, such as her spouse, her children or somebody else, who is not qualified to be on her medical team.  I have the confidence that the only people who get to look through my files are those that are qualified persons, are accountable and have a good reason to have this information.

This is much the same way a legal services practice should be run.  A client’s experience should not include meeting the lawyer or paralegal’s spouse, their child, their barber, their golf buddies, etc.  In particular, our rules prohibit third party disclosure without very specific and written consent executed by a client.  Such cases might involve permitting my office to obtain copies of medical files from a physician, or to communicate with the client’s WSIB Case Manager.  Once files are received, clients have a right to examine and/or receive a copy of it.  We will contact a client prior to sending one of these consent forms out to ensure that the right physician is being contacted on their behalf.  Clients also get copies of all executed third party consent and disclosure agreements.

The Role of Transparency

While your lawyer or paralegal is not necessarily obligated to tell you everything they researched, every article or case law they reviewed, or how they spent their time to the minute, the client is owed a regular report.  A client should not have to wait until the evening before to be informed about a court date or case conference.  This information should be given to the client as soon as the legal office receives it.  At this point, it would be easier to get an adjournment or to address special needs, as necessary.  There may be other appearances that a lawyer or paralegal carries out on the client’s behalf as well.  Even if the client is not required to attend, the outcome of these events should be reported.  I prefer to send a short email or letter to keep a client informed.  Other times, a phone call would do.

Money Matters

Transparency with fees and costs is also important.  It is important to ensure that in a difficult case that you do not underestimate the time you might need to take on a file.  You do not want to be stuck to the numbers underestimated earlier.  A case assessment is important first before a lawyer or paralegal can even begin to ball park their fees and costs.  If you are asked to pay funds up front, this means the lawyer or paralegal has a trust account to put the money in.  This money is yours until your paralegal or lawyer completes at least some work and bills the account.

It is not mandatory for a paralegal or lawyer to hold a trust account.  However, if they choose not to, they cannot ask for funds up front from you, accept settlement funds on your behalf or conduct any other monetary transfers.  Some practitioners, particularly those whose practices focus on Highway Traffic Offences, for example, may not use trust accounts.  Their work is primarily done and completed in short order.  They do not generally accept settlement funds on behalf of clients. In any case, receipts should always be provided for any monies transferred to your lawyer or paralegal, even if this is a payment for a final invoice.

Angela Browne is part of the Coach and Advisory Network (CAN) of the Law Society of Ontario, who advises her peers on a number of issues including professionalism and case management.  She can be reached at angela@browneandassociates.ca