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Trust Accounting:  No Margin for Error

Trust Accounting No Margin for Error

“You don’t want to fool with trust accounts,” says Attorney Joseph Fuller, founder of the Alabama-based law firm, Fuller Hampton, LLC.  One small mistake on a client’s trust account, he cautions, can carry serious consequences for both, attorney and client.  In spite of this, according to an ABA article, authored by Sheila M. Blackford, practice management advisor for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund, mismanagement of trust accounts continues to a top reason why attorneys get into regulatory hot water, every year.

When you’re trying to balance clients’ escrow accounts, says Mr. Fuller, there is absolutely no room for failure. He and his colleagues should know:  the law firm specializes in bankruptcy, real estate and title law, which requires them to regularly conduct triple reconciliations on their clients’ trusts, as directed by the Alabama State Bar Association. As if that is not enough, they have to endure arduous title insurance underwriting audits, three times per year.

The attorneys at Fuller Hampton, know how to properly manage trust accounts because they simply can’t afford not to. According to Mr. Fuller, it’s comes down to having the right measures in place. His firm relies on LexisNexis® PCLaw® client matter, billing and accounting software to track and manage the firm’s legal matters. When you’re dealing with someone’s money or estate, it requires a tremendous amount of care and oversight. A skill he believes is almost “humanly impossible” to manage while also trying to juggle complicated legal matters. Time he says, could otherwise be better spent advocating for his clients.

“As a lawyer, I want to spend the least amount of time on administrative work.”

Just a few years ago, before he purchased Fuller Hampton, his solo firm relied on a homegrown management process which included a combination of timesheets stapled together in a file folder and spreadsheets.

Now he admits this approach, “is a sure-fire way to screw up.”

Today, his hands are full with two busy office locations to manage and a staff of five attorneys. Not surprisingly, he has to do much of his legal work while travelling in between various locations. For him, having the ability to quickly log in remotely into PCLaw is critical, because within a few seconds he can pull up a client’s account to see what it is doing or, check to see if a divorce case has been contested. This is great he says because it keeps “productivity rolling,” whether he is in the office or not.

fuller-hampton-law-firmRead the Complete Case Study on the PCLaw Resources Page
Practice Management Case Study, Fuller Hampton, LLC

Speaking of productivity, the technology also enables him to run reports on the firm’s five attorneys and see how much they’ve billed for the firm, at any given time. This he says is a great way to keep his finger on the pulse of the business.

As much as working more efficiently is paramount to the success of the firm, Mr. Fuller says the most valuable part of the technology is the peace of mind it gives him knowing his clients’ assets are protected, especially when in transit, as is often the case with client trusts, when funds are moving from one bank account to another.

Although he’d like to avoid it, all too often he will run into a mortgage lender trying to reverse a wire transfer after a check has been cut. PCLaw prevents this type of situation from happening by matching up individual transactions and bank records.

“In our industry—dealing with real estate closings—lenders have been known to do this.” “The load PCLaw has taken off me from worrying about these things is worth its weight in gold.”

Now, when his office receives a wire, it goes directly into a dedicated checking account call a Trust Wire Account. From there, he goes online to the firm’s bank and transfers those funds into the firm’s Attorney Trust Account. This steps is important because it ensures his clients’ assets are protected, at all stages.

“You simply can’t fulfill that requirement without a dependable billing and tracking software.”

In less than a month, he says the technology paid for itself. He also credits the investment with enabling the firm to capture 50 percent more in billable time, in comparison to the year prior. The savings in revenue he says is due, in large part, to the PCLaw software, which frees the attorneys’ time enabling them to focus less on timely administrative tasks and more on practicing law.

Today, it only takes Mr. Fuller a matter of seconds to manage and review his firm’s four different bank accounts. At any given moment he can pull up an account and see how it is doing. This increased visibility just goes to show how quickly a firm can move to the next level by embracing new tools to better manage the business.

Sometimes change is good. Especially when it means client assets are being protected with the utmost confidence and care, as is the case with Fuller Hampton. In this scenario, it sure sounds like a firm we’d put our trust in any day.

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Photo credit:  Flickr, Linda, (CC BY 2.0)

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About Frank Strong

Frank Strong
Frank Strong is the communications director for the LexisNexis software division located on NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh. In this capacity, he leads communications efforts in support of software products for law practice and law department management and also litigation tools – across large law, small law and corporate counsel segments. With more than 15 years of experience in the high-tech sector, Strong previously served as director of public relations for Vocus, which developed marketing, PR and media monitoring software. He has held multiple roles both in-house with corporations, ranging from startups to global organizations, and has also endured the rigors of billable hours, having completed gigs at PR firms including the top 10 global firm Hill & Knowlton. A veteran of two year-long deployments, Strong has concurrently served in uniform in reserve components of the military for more than 20 years, initially as an enlisted Marine and later as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. Strong holds a BA in Film and TV production from Worcester State University, an M.A. in Public Communication from American University, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University. He is a PADI-certified Master Scuba Diver and holds a USPA "B" skydiving license.