After almost a decade of coaching lawyers to improve their time management, profitability and client service, I’ve heard hundreds of stories about little things not going right in the daily course of practice — for example in an interaction between attorney and paralegal. But I’d never experienced such a glitch first hand as a client – until three weeks ago, at the closing of my new home. Things were going quite smoothly until it came time for the seller’s real estate agent to collect both her client’s proceeds and her commission. The seller’s attorney looked at our attorney and asked if he had the checks made out already. Ooops! He didn’t. Turns out that in New Haven County, it’s customary for the seller’s attorney to write those checks, whereas (according to the seller’s attorney) he expected, based on Hartford County convention, that the buyer’s attorney would be writing the checks. Indeed, he didn’t even bring any checks with him. The seller’s attorney fumbled a bit, made a few harried calls to his office, and then apologized for his paralegal’s having dropped the ball. After some back and forth about signing over bank checks, our attorney proposed a solution and wrote the checks out of his firm’s funds. As a legal practice advisor, I felt for the seller’s attorney. Though it wasn’t a big deal, he was embarrassed, and I wondered how, if at all, he would follow up when he got back to the office. But here’s how he should have followed up: ideally, he’d calmly explain to his paralegal the New Haven convention regarding check writing, and make sure an item was added to the para’s closing checklist along the lines of: “determine who is responsible for bringing pay out, commission, and any other checks that must be cut.” The key learning here is not that the para – or the attorney – made a mistake based on an erroneous assumption (although that’s good learning in and of itself). Rather, it’s that when glitches do occur, they are followed up on in a timely, systematic way, and a process solution put in place to prevent them in the future. In this case, it would have been as simple as the attorney placing a call to his paralegal upon returning to his car. I couldn’t tell if the attorney was likely to take such action or not. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, however, and hoped that he would.
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