Becoming a locum

Locums are usually lawyers who are seeking some variety in their professional lives or perhaps wish to pursue travel and live in other communities for a period of time.

The role of a locum is to ensure another lawyer’s practice runs smoothly while the lawyer is away. This includes generating a positive cash flow, perhaps attracting new client files, and maintaining a positive working relationship with staff.

Considerations

Before accepting a retainer, you must be satisfied that you have the ability and capacity to deal adequately with any legal matters to be undertaken.

Also note that you cannot rely on support staff to fulfill your obligations to the client – the buck stops with you.

Make sure you (or senior staff) have an emergency contact phone or email for your lawyer/client.

How to establish yourself as a locum

List with the Law Society Locum Registry Log-in to access the registry

Advertise your services to other lawyers so they are aware what you do and where you are prepared to offer these services. It is important to let people know that you are willing to undertake this type of work, but be sure that you are competent to handle all practice areas that are required.

Meet with other sole practitioners and explain what you do. They may know of other lawyers who may be interested in hiring a locum.

Terms of Engagement

Confirm your arrangement with your lawyer/client in writing. Often the lawyer/client will want some form of confirmation that you will be in their office when you say you will and the length of time you have agreed to act as locum.

For precedent material, consider adapting the various forms of retainer letter from the Law Society materials. Whatever format you use, ensure it includes:

  • the fee arrangement
  • expenses
  • some form of cancellation clause

You may be a lawyer, but remember, you are entering into a binding contract and it needs the same amount of careful drafting and review as you would give to any other client’s contract drafting. Each locum will have his or her own style of engagement letter and how he/she wants to communicate with the lawyer/client.

The locum arrangement

Communicate directly with the lawyer/client or the office manager. Ensure that you put in writing what you are prepared to do and what you are specifically not prepared to do.

Make sure you have signing authority. Find out the name of the bookkeeper, and establish a rapport. Consider a dual-signature signing authority with you as one signatory, and a senior staff member from the office as the other. This protects both the locum and lawyer/clients interest in the financial management of the firm while the lawyer/client is away.

Have the necessary office equipment It will not be necessary for you to travel with an “office” as a locum, but you will need:

  • rubber stamps (name stamp plus the lawyer/client’s address and phone number stamp; do not use your own address)
  • notarial seal
  • pens
  • business cards
  • computer backup devices
  • manuals and precedent materials

Consider also having the Law Society Practice Checklists Manual on hand as well as Continuing Legal Education practice manuals.

Ensure you know the names of all staff in the office to build strong working relationships and start on the right foot.

Mobility and accommodation

Locums are required all over the province and often you will be required to travel and stay locally. Unless you are only going to accept a locum which is an easy commute from the town or city in which you live, then travel and accommodation arrangements will be necessary.

If you are staying in a motel, then you have to consider whether you will be eating out most of the time or cooking you own meals; what facilities the motel may have, and who is responsible for booking the motel.

If you are staying at the lawyer’s home then ensure that arrangements have been made for keys, alarm codes, passwords and other security concerns before you arrive. Consider also where you will be sleeping and what household items you may be expected to bring.

Ethical issues

Clients The lay clients are NOT your clients — they are the clients of the lawyer/client, who expects to remain in the relationships. Do not expect (nor want) to take those lay clients with you — except at the request of your lawyer/client.

Referrals If you cannot handle a matter and it is urgent, refer it to a local colleague who covers such work. Do not risk losing the client for the practice you are covering.

Professional misconduct If you believe your lawyer/client may have breached an undertaking, stolen trust funds or done anything else that would raise a substantial question as to the lawyer's honesty or trustworthiness, you must report the matter to the Law Society (Chapter 7 of the BC Code). If the matter is still unclear, contact a Law Society practice advisor.

Undertakings While an undertaking is always the responsibility of the lawyer who gives it, often undertakings such as payment of strata maintenance fees, obligations to register discharges at the LTO, etc. can usually be safely given knowing the lawyer/client’s office will perform the obligation. You can often judge soon after you start what sort of office operation you are at — if the practice is run in a somewhat sloppy fashion, be cautious about entering into an undertaking. It is better to say no than put yourself under in a potential liability situation. Remember, the liability is definitely the locum’s and not the lawyer/client’s as it is you, as locum, who signed the letter.

Dealing with difficult clients Treat these clients the same as you would in your own practice and get some input from the senior support staff if you have a particularly difficult client.

New clients It is appropriate for new clients to meet with the locum in the absence of the lawyer. 

Confidentiality and conflicts. Both the responsible lawyer and the locum need to turn their minds to the issues of client confidentiality and conflicts. 

The responsible lawyer owes a duty of confidentiality to his or her clients. If the responsible lawyer intends to use locums on a more or less regular basis over the course of the practice, consideration should be given to adding something to the firm’s retainer letter to obtain client consent to locums providing coverage from time to time during the lawyer’s temporary absence. If no consent was obtained from clients at the time of retainer, then the responsible lawyer should obtain the consent from any clients that he or she knows will be meeting with the locum during the lawyer’s absence. If by the time the locum commences there has been no prior client consent obtained, the locum will need to address the issue of confidentiality and obtain the consent from clients as they present themselves. If a client does not wish to have the locum attend to a matter and it can wait, then it should be put over until the responsible lawyer returns. If it can’t wait, the client is free to take the matter elsewhere; however, if the client calls for his or her file, and fees or disbursements are outstanding that the client does not wish to pay, the locum will need to consider the issue of solicitors’ liens. See the article Solicitors’ Liens and Charging Orders – Your Fees and Your Clients at Practice Support and Resources

The responsible lawyer and the locum also need to address the issue of conflicts. For those clients that the responsible lawyer knows will be meeting with the locum, the issue of conflicts should be cleared in advance. If a number of conflicts are discovered, the choice of locum may need to be reconsidered. In some instances, it may not be possible to clear all conflicts before the responsible lawyer leaves, so the locum will need to consult his or her own client conflict lists (either from his or her own practice or from other locums he or she has taken on) to be sure there are none before commencing work on the matter.