Let’s face it, you are all going to end your careers as practitioners at some time – whether intentionally or unintentionally. None of us wants to consider the worst possible scenario – death or permanent disability – but we know that it happens. There is nothing you can do about that. But, how well that transition proceeds is dependent upon how prepared you are for the worst case scenario.
I have written articles in the past on disaster planning and preparing for retirement, but this month I am going to discuss how to prepare your firm/practice in case you cannot practice for either an extended period of time or ever again.
Admittedly none of us wants to think about these types of issues, but you have an obligation to your clients, your partners, your staff, and your family to make sure that you have done all the preparation necessary to help them with the transition.
This preparation is critical for all practitioners, and not just “seasoned” (i.e., old) practitioners. This is true for young practitioners as well because, well – stuff happens.
How have you prepared for the possibility that you will not be able to practice tomorrow morning? Do you have a contingency plan on what someone would have to do to step in at a moment’s notice?
Here are some issues, in no particular order, that need to be considered to make certain your practice and your family are prepared.
Have you designated someone to handle your cases in the event of your death or disability? Once you have designated someone, make certain you share that information with staff and family. You should also contact your malpractice carrier to determine if you need to share that information.
Have you included wording in your engagement letter indicating what will happen if you are suddenly unable to continue to work? A simple way to obtain client consent to covering the representation in the event of the lawyer’s unavailability would be to add a paragraph to the retainer letter or fee agreement. In the article, “The Transitioning Lawyer: How to Meet Your Legal Obligations,” published in the January/February 2000 issue of the ABA GP Solo, Marcia Proctor suggests adding the following and that “the notice need not be any more complicated than that required for record retention plans. An example might be: ‘In the event of my disability or death before the conclusion of this matter, [backup lawyer] will have access to your name, address, and representation file in order to notify you so you may obtain substitute counsel. By retaining me you agree to this disclosure, should it become necessary.’” (For link to complete article, see the online version of the Bar Bulletin.)
Do you have a list of all contacts, passwords, bank account information, etc., in a location so someone can retrieve it if you are suddenly unable to work? If that list is on your computer, is there anyone else who can access it? For a document that lists information you should have, go to msba.org>Member Resources>LOMA>Articles>OfficeManagment. The title is “Important Office Management Information”. Take some time to complete this list, then check it annually to make sure it is up to date. If you have an assistant, many of the items can be completed by him/her.
Do you have a document retention policy that includes information on what will happen to files should you be unable to work?
Do you have a will, power of attorney, advanced health care directive? Have you designated someone to handle these issues? And do they have access to your information?
Have you kept your calendar up to date? And do others have access to make certain they can handle immediate matters?
Do you have a procedure guide for all tasks in your office so someone can come in and know how all of your tasks are handled? There is an article on the MSBA website “How to Write Your Own Procedure Manual” and “What to Include in an Office Manual” under Member Resources>LOMA>Articles>Office Management.
If you have a social media presence, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, have you decided how you want these to be used if you die? Each has its own rules. Here are three good articles on what decisions you need to make to be certain your wishes are fulfilled:
- “Write a Social Media Will.” Published at www.usa.gov/topics/money/personal-finance/wills.shtml.
- “Planning for the Digital Afterlife.” Published at IPSpotlight.com.
- “May You Tweet in Peace: Social Media Beyond the Grave.” Published on the “All Tech Considered” blog at npr.org.
I realize this is not the most uplifting topic and most of us do not want to take the time to handle this type of preparation, but ask yourself how you want to be remembered by those closest to you if you die or are disabled suddenly. Do you want to be remembered as someone who left others to clean up the mess? Or as someone who did everything possible to ease the task?