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Law Practice Management Lessons Learned from Serial’s M. Cristina Gutierrez

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Even if you haven’t listened, you’ve likely heard of the podcast “Serial”, dubbed the most popular podcast in the world based on the number of iTunes downloads and having since served as the basis for a Saturday Night Live skit. From the creators of “This American Life”, the podcast “Serial” spans twelve episodes following the same plot, an investigation into a fifteen-year-old murder mystery. The reporter, Sarah Koenig, attempts to find the truth behind the disappearance of a young girl, Hae Min Lee, in 1999, which ultimately led to the conviction and imprisonment of the girl’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. For more background on origins of the podcast and a synopsis of the plot, take a look at this New Yorker article.
Beginning with the first episode of the series, we (the listeners) are alerted to a potential error or oversight by Syed’s trial attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez. Throughout the series, Koenig continues to question the attorney’s decisions, strategies, and overall effectiveness. Finally, in episode ten, Koenig devotes the entire show to her investigation of Gutierrez. We learn then that Gutierrez was disbarred in 2001, and after a struggle will illnesses, died from a heart attack in 2004 (referenced briefly in episode one). In that episode, Koenig details Gutierrez’s behavior during trial and after. She provides accounts by Syed’s parents as well as other clients, who noted, for example, that she could be difficult to reach, sometimes was late or missed deadlines, may have not been straightforward in regards to potential claims, and made unreasonable requests for money. Both her mental and physical health declined rapidly after the conclusion of Syed’s trial, forcing her into a hospital for a period of time, where she continued to practice even though she couldn’t keep up with the demands of her work. Gutierrez was disbarred in 2001 after “a record number of complaints” were filed against her for trust account mismanagement, totaling over $200,000.
To make sense of this, I conferenced my colleague, Dr. Jeff Fortgang, a clinical psychologist, who helps attorneys struggling with mental health issues to get his thoughts on the matter. Jeff has since expanded and published those thoughts in a blog post (forthcoming – to be published the week of 1/29/14), here, on the Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers blog. From Dr. Fortgang’s perspective, Gutierrez was “significantly impaired”. As a result, her practice suffered. This is precisely why LOMAP works hand-in-hand with our brothers and sisters at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. When an attorney’s mental health suffers, so does his or her practice. Dr. Forgang makes a number of interesting observations in his blog post, including noting some tell-tale signs that Gutierrez was struggling, such as her use of “peculiar courtroom phrasing” and “urgent quest[s] for money”.
While Dr. Forgang contemplates diagnoses and mental health concerns, I’m left thinking about how Gutierrez’s mis-management of her practice may have impacted the case. As soon as Koenig mentioned that Gutierrez’s staff and colleagues indicated that “she was never interested in the business side of things”, it was “not her forte”, I knew I was onto something. As to her trial strategies, I cannot comment directly, as I don’t know enough about the facts and no longer practice myself, plus hindsight is always 20-20. However, I wonder whether disorganization in her law practice contributed to her failure to pursue the Asia McClain lead (Syed’s potential alibi witness) or a plea deal as Adnan claims he requested. Moreover, it may also have been the reason why her witness examinations were so lengthy, and as Adnan described it, disjointed. She also struggled with client communication and billing. An addiction, as Dr. Forgang surmises, could explain her urgent requests for money, but even so, she probably did not have an effective financial management system. I suspect that being overwhelmed with work also did not help her maintain good channels of communication with her clients.
So, what law practice management lessons can we learn from Gutierrez? Here’s my list below:
1) Invest in a law practice management system. We’ve written about law practice management systems time and time again, here, here, here, and here. From client, contact, and matter management to time and billing, document management, and more, a law practice management program can help you organize your entire practice. With popular cloud-based law practice management programs, you have access to client information and files at your fingertips, that might be documents, correspondence, billing information, or your own case notes. I’m betting Gutierrez did not use a law practice management system.
2) Go paperless. In addition to helping keep your practice organized, ditching paper files and scanning hard copies into an electronic system can save time and money. Storing electronic files costs little money, and computer search tools can be used to quickly find documents. Plus, with cloud-based storage, you can access documents almost anywhere. As long as you set up consistent and systematic paperless filing system, you can ensure that no file goes missing and can be easily accessed when needed. Certainly, Gutierrez could have benefited from an organized paperless system. To learn how to develop a paperless office, tune in to our upcoming Lunch Hour Legal Marketing webinar led by paperless guru Ernie Svenson. (We invite you to come watch with us and network with other solo attorneys at our office in Downtown Crossing. RSVP here!)
3) Keep a budget. It’s hard to know what you can spend without bankrupting your practice and what you need to make to maintain a positive cash cashflow without keeping a budget. Every business needs a budget – or, at least, those that plan to be sustainable. A budget will enable you to make better business decisions and thus avoid desperate financial situations. Whatever the reason for Gutierrez’s irrational requests for money, she clearly wasn’t making informed decisions with a budget in mind.
4) Keep in regular touch with clients. Happy clients = less bar complaints = happy attorney. The key to client satisfaction is keeping your client apprised of the great work you do and the value that you provide. If you are organized in your practice, keeping in touch with your clients on a regular basis should not be difficult. A best practice is not to let more than six weeks pass without communicating with your client. An email, phone call, or a more formal case status report is appropriate. Maintaining regular contact with your clients will also help avoid excessive and outside business hour phone calls. While Koenig reported that Gutierrez was know for her communication style (or, rather, lack thereof), it clearly backfired on her.
5) Prepare for the unexpected and reach out if you need help. Practicing as a solo practitioner, or even in a small firm, is mighty challenging. You wear multiple hats – as an administrator, rainmaker, and practicing lawyer. The buck stops with you. As such, if something happens to you, all those functions cease. Planning for unexpected absences from your practice is as important as the bills you send your clients. Succession planing – steps taken to sustain or to wind down your practice while you are away – starts by finding a backup attorney who can take over your practice at a moment’s notice. Maintaining an organized practice with well-documented office policies and procedures is essential to succession planning. (For more on how to prepare, attend this upcoming CLE at the Boston Bar Association.)
Finally, know that there are resources available to you, if you should need help. MassLOMAP can help guide you toward a more efficient and productive law practice by helping you implement best practices in your office. And, as my colleague Dr. Forgang stresses in his post, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, can help you navigate difficult mental health issues before they take a significant and irreversible toll on your practice.
So, while we may never have all the details in the case against Adnan Syed or a complete understanding of Cristina Gutierrez’s defense and reasons for her decline, at the very least we attorneys can take steps toward better management of our practice so that we don’t end up down the same road.

I recently unveiled APPropos, my form of Jared’s ”Headstickers”, app recommendations for your mobile practice. Here are a few more:
Calendars 5: A calendar program that syncs with iOS and Google calendars, and reminders. Uses natural language processing to add events to your calendar, including entry title, time, place, and contact.
iThoughts: A mindmapping program to visual and organize your thoughts. A great way to brainstorm for an article, presentation, or argument.
WordPress: Edit and add content to your websites and blogs from your mobile device. This app has been through a number of updates, and gets better each time.

CATEGORIES: Career Planning & Transition | Client Relations | Law Firm Management | Law Practice Startup | Lawyer's Quality of Life | Planning | Productivity | Risk Management | Technology

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