There are many pitfalls to avoid for the paralegal responsible for managing a domestic relations case. In this Quick Tips, a key few are addressed:
- Initial Consultations - From the time the potential clients first call in, through the moment they determine whether or not to retain, the attorney-client relationship has already begun. In addition to being an exercise in information gathering, the "intake call" and the initial consultation are also the first instances that the client interacts with the attorney - whether by you, as proxy, or directly. The scope of the attorney-client relationship is defined and limited by the engagement letter, or "fee agreement," that the client signs with the firm. If, later, there is any dispute between the attorney and the client over the work that was done on the case, that contract initiating and governing the attorney-client relationship is the key to determining whether or not the client has a valid complaint. This is why, if a client attends an initial consultation only to determine not to hire the firm at the end of the meeting, it is important to send a "non-engagement" communication, in writing, to that potential client confirming that there is no attorney-client relationship and that the client will be representing him/herself until and unless a formal fee agreement is executed.
- Sources, and Tracking, of Deadlines - C.R.C.P. Rules 16.2 and 121 have many deadlines applicable to most if not all domestic relations cases in Colorado. However, our courts also generally issue a Case Management Order ("CMO") when a pre- or post-Decree matter is filed. That CMO has important deadlines, such as the date of the Initial Status Conference. However, courts will often also put deadlines in certain Minute Orders, a "pre-hearing" order, or even just orally on the record. Be sure to check all of these sources - including your attorney’s notes from any in court appearance - and incorporate all deadlines on both an electronic and paper calendar.
- Formal and Informal Information Gathering - There are ways to seek evidence for the eventual trial during the information gathering phase of the litigation process, such as witness interviews (informal), and depositions (formal). There are mandatory (C.R.C.P. Rule 16.2 disclosures) and optional (formal discovery under C.R.C.P. Rules 26-37) formal methods of obtaining that information. It is important to know the pitfalls of the information gathering phase - such as being sure any witnesses know that your office does not represent them - so that you can avoid them. Of particular concern can be Rule 45 subpoenas. Be sure to discuss these technicalities with your attorney before they become an issue for you.
- Avoiding the Unauthorized Practice of Law like the Plague - As a paralegal, you will be very knowledgeable about both the cases on which you work and the rules and statutes that come up over and over again. Despite having this wealth of knowledge, it is imperative to avoid activities and interactions with clients, courts, and others that may be considered "practicing law." Practicing law without a license could subject you and your supervising attorneys to investigation by the Office of Attorney Regulation, which can lead to severe sanctions, civil liability, and may have a negative impact on your chances of becoming an attorney in the future.
Margot F. Alicks is a co-founder and the managing shareholder of Broxterman Alicks McFarlane PC, a family law firm in Denver, Colorado. She has been selected for inclusion as a Rising Star in 2014, 2015, and 2016 by Colorado SuperLawyers®, a 2015 "Compleat Lawyer" by Law Week Colorado, and has been nominated for the Denver Business Journal's 2015 "40 Under 40" award.
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