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What to Do If You Can't Find Your Client

Everybody loses clients, but what if you literally lose a client?

Losing track of a client can be more distressing than losing the client's business. Lawyers have a duty to protect the legal rights of even those clients they can't find. When they go missing, you may find yourself in an ethical minefield as you go about searching for them.

"If an attorney is having trouble contacting a client, the attorney should make all reasonable efforts to locate the client," according to the Washington State Bar newsletter. "If contacting the client is not possible, the attorney should keep records documenting all efforts to give notice, including efforts to contact the client by mail, phone, and email."

Over the years, we've seen lawyers disciplined and suspended from practice for hundreds of different reasons: publishing allegedly false statements about local judges on their blogs, representing both parties in a personal injury suit, falsifying eDiscovery documents, even insulting colleagues. (Not to mention the many sex with clients scandals.)

But does a suspension mean that an attorney can't work at all for that period? Not necessarily.

Legal ethics aren't something you should pick up through trial and error. Instead, attorneys should make compliance with their ethical and professional responsibilities a central part of their business -- as important as getting clients and billing hours. Thankfully, in many cases, complying with your ethical responsibilities isn't too trying. You simply have to know when to spot potential issues and how to react to them.

To help you out, here are some of our best attorney ethics tips, from the FindLaw archives.

The internet has always been a place to experiment with identity, and maybe to fudge the truth a bit. Think of the Facebook teens claiming to be experts on international politics, for example, or the divorcee looking for love on a dating website, with pictures that are a decade or so old.

That desire to embellish can sneak in to lawyer websites, too, and suddenly you're no longer a solo practitioner, you're "Lawyer and Associates;" you don't just have a family law practice, you're a leading expert in divorce. But this kind of puffery could be an ethics violation.

Even the most focused lawyer can be pulled off task by distractions, by the urgent phone call, the quick email, the glance at Facebook that turns into a few minutes of scrolling.

Such distractions are largely unavoidable. The problem is, time spent on distractions isn't billable. So how can you make sure that you're not accidentally passing the cost of that social media break or quick coffee run on to your clients? Here are some ideas.

You can bill clients for the work your student interns do, even if you pay those interns nothing. That’s the conclusion of a recent opinion from the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics.

In March, the committee addressed the situation law student interns who work, for free, for local firms, in exchange for academic credit in lieu of cold hard cash. The firm could ethically bill for that student work, the committee concluded, though it emphasized that it spoke only of attorney ethics, not applicable labor law.

Maybe you helped Donald Trump close a deal on a New Jersey shopping mall. Or maybe he consulted you, way back when, for some legal advice. Now he's running for president and you want to speak out -- without revealing anything too confidential, of course. Can you?

Of course, for the vast majority of us, this is simply a hypothetical. But for some lawyers, it's a very real question -- and some lawyers have started talking publicly about their time with Trump, raising very real questions about the ethics behind discussing former clients, even when you don't reveal any non-public information.

A South Carolina ethics opinion on attorney fee-sharing should give lawyers considering fixed-fee legal referral programs like Avvo's Legal Services pause. Avvo launched ALS this January, as a sort of Uber for legal services. The service allows customers to pay for legal work by task, rather than by billable hour, with Avvo setting the prices. Reviewing a prenup costs $150, for example, incorporating an LLC costs $595. Customers purchase the service through ALS, who then pays the attorneys that actually do the work.

Avvo, of course, takes its own cut, as a marketing fee. And those fees, along with the pay-for-referral nature of the service, have just been called unethical by the South Carolina Bar's Ethics Advisory Committee.

How to Talk to Potential Clients So They Don't Proceed Pro Se

It happens to solo lawyers with an unwelcome consistency: a client walks through your door to avail himself of your legal advice and then decides to either look for cheaper options, or worse, go about his matter pro se. What do you do?

It's been more than six years since the so-called economic downturn of 2008, but many people are still unreasonably frugal. It could be that people are worried about the recent negative predictions about the market. In this climate, how do you convince these clients that going pro se could be the worst mistake of their lives?

You've Been Formally Prosecuted in State Bar Court. Now What?

You worked hard for your license to practice law. You studied the LSAT, got into school, passed the bar and passed moral character and fitness... and a single ethics violation means it could all be taken away, just like that.

It's all very scary stuff about a system that very few attorneys know about -- though it haunts our thoughts. How do ethics hearings work? What is this thing called the State Bar Court? And what happens when attorneys are prosecuted in it?