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 delivery 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 being followed and that our clients still walk away with a feeling they have been professionally attended to.
We have expectations when we visit our family doctor. We know who will be there, who will access our personal information and how we can get a copy of it for our own records. Technology has done some wonders for that profession, whereby your health records are computerized and put into a practice management system and can be printed out right on the spot, or an electronic signature put into place to submit a prescription for you to your favourite pharmacy. Each time I visit my family physician, I attend the same office, with 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 physician and her staff, where she can open it up and access all recent test results, specialist reports, prescription lists and a clinical record where my patient visits are recorded.
At times, I met with my physician in a state of worry over health concerns, and for this reason, it was preferred that I speak to her in confidence. At this point, it is usually just the physician and myself in the room. Occasionally, with my permission, the physician might bring in a nurse practitioner or an RPN for the purposes of accessing vaccines or obtaining a regular 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, whereby she brings her own computer and other equipment, only to lug it back to her home again after visiting her patients for the day. Nor does anybody else enter the physician’s office, such as her spouse, her children or somebody else, who may be related to her, but is not qualified to be on a medical team. I have the confidence that the only people who get to look through my files are those that are qualified persons and who have good reason to view my files.
This is much the same as 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. These cases might involve permission for my office to obtain copies of medical files from a client’s physician, or to communicate with the client’s WSIB Case Manager. Once the files are received, as a client we have a right to examine and/or receive a copy of it, as in the context of whatever case we are managing. I even 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 it might not necessarily hold true that your lawyer or paralegal is obligated to tell you everything they have researched, every article or case law they reviewed, or how they spent their time on their case 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 an important court date or case conference. This information should be given to the client as soon as the practitioner receives it, in the event an adjournment is required or special needs can be addressed. There may be other appearances that a lawyer or paralegal carries out on the client’s behalf as well, but even if the client is not required to attend, a report of the outcome of these events should be reported. I prefer to send a short email or letter to outline these types of reports to keep a client informed. Other times, a phone call would do.
Transparency with fees and costs is also important. It is important to ensure that in a difficult type of case that you do not underestimate the time you might need to take on a file, only to be stuck to the numbers originally provided 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, prior to billing and then transferring these funds to their business or personal accounts. Until work is done and invoiced, the monies held in trust still belong to the client.
While it is not mandatory for a paralegal or lawyer to hold a trust account, 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 on your behalf. 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 and 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 an invoice.