A program to help lawyers spot gaps in their own practices has just been made official by the state Supreme Court.
Effective June 28, the Colorado Supreme Court adopted the Colorado Lawyer Self-Assessment Program in the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure. CRCP 256 established the program, which is voluntary and asks lawyers to take a comprehensive survey on how they address different aspects of lawyering from avoiding conflicts of interest to charging fees. The rule also installs confidentiality requirements on how lawyers and the court must handle the survey responses.
The main idea behind the self-assessment program is to give lawyers a chance to identify trouble spots in their practices before they lead to ethics violations or professional development problems. The survey, which lawyers can take either in print or digital form, has been online since October.
Since then, its volunteer creators in the court’s Proactive Management-Based Program subcommittee have been promoting the self-assessment program in the Colorado legal community. The PMBP subcommittee is presenting an all-day ethics CLE on Tuesday to discuss a range of topics touched on in the survey.
The survey is broken up into 10 different sections, each concerning a specific area of practice, such as file retention and trust account management. But the survey asks lawyers about more than just common legal ethics issues; it also asks whether they think their firm or organization promotes wellness and inclusivity among its ranks, for example.
According to CRCP 256, the self-assessment program “gives lawyers and law firms the opportunity to improve the quality of legal services offered and to build greater client satisfaction through proactive practice review.”
The self-assessment program was borne out of a May 2015 workshop in Denver, led by then-Attorney Regulation Counsel Jim Coyle, to develop a “proactive assessment program.” The PMBP subcommittee, which has nearly 50 members and is chaired by Faegre Baker Daniels partner David Stark, has held 16 meetings to develop the self-assessment program.
But inspiration for the program goes back further than the 2015 workshop. A 1991 Cornell Law Review article by Ted Schneyer, a professor at the of the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, stressed the importance of law firms maintaining an “ethical infrastructure” that includes having their lawyers assess their own practices.
Since then, studies out of Australia supported the usefulness of self-assessments for lawyers, and the Canadian Bar Association has implemented its own such tool. Colorado is currently one of two states, Illinois being the other, that has a self-assessment program for lawyers.
The Colorado Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel administers the program. The survey can be an educational tool, but it has value even if it helps reinforce ethical best practices that an attorney is already doing, according to Jonathan White, who is on the PMBP subcommittee and is the OARC’s professional development staff attorney.
“I think that if a lawyer sits down and goes through the self assessment program … and says, ‘You know what, I’m really checking “yes” to a lot of these procedures, and I feel better about my practice because of that,’ I think we’ve succeeded,” White said.
Attorney Regulation Counsel Jessica Yates said that the self-assessment survey can make lawyers mindful of other effective methods of legal practice they might not have considered. Attorneys are often so busy that they might be relying on template client engagement letters or other routines without really thinking about whether those are the best practices.
Many of the survey questions are accompanied by “Ethical Considerations” that include the ethical rule that’s implicated in the issue in the question, as well as links to resources that survey-takers might click on for further reading. One of the questions asks lawyers if they have considered using limited scope representation and links to online reference guides on that type of practice.
“One of the things that excites me the most about this program is the opportunity to put those resources out there for lawyers to digest,” White said.
The new rule outlines confidentiality requirements in how the state Supreme Court and its OARC handle the survey data. CRCP 256 prohibits the OARC from collecting any data from the surveys that would make the survey takers personally identifiable, and the office can’t use the confidential survey information in any of its disciplinary or disability proceedings.
White said that the OARC might use the anonymous aggregate data from the surveys to help improve educational programming in different areas. It will also be “helpful” to the OARC to see how lawyers assess themselves in connection with their practice setting, location and years of experience, he added.
CRCP 256 also requires lawyers and firms to keep self-assessment survey information strictly confidential when it’s shared with them. The point of the confidentiality requirements is to encourage lawyers to take the survey and have those candid conversations, Yates said. “It’s more that because it’s confidential, it will encourage people to take the assessments and talk with other attorneys about their assessment answers.”
Attorneys can earn free CLE credit for taking the self-assessment survey. They are encouraged to discuss their survey responses with supervisors or mentors, as well, and the PMBP subcommittee is working out an arrangement with the Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program for lawyers to earn additional CLE credit if they do a survey peer review through CAMP.
The subcommittee is presenting an all-day seminar and webcast on the self-assessment program Tuesday at the Colorado Bar Association CLE. Attendees can earn ethics CLE credits at the seminar, which will not only cover the self-assessment itself but also educate on the various lawyering practices the survey addresses.
Yates and White said that the survey, while it is 10 sections long, doesn’t have to be completed in one sitting. Survey takers’ progress is saved if they choose to fill it out section by section. White said that the self-assessment program is meant to “evolve over time,” and survey takers are encouraged to give feedback on the survey through a form that’s provided in the online version.
— Doug Chartier