What will happen to your firm, your clients if you have a medical emergency, or, god forbid, pass away suddenly? It doesn’t matter whether you are a sole practitioner or in a mega-sized firm, attorneys have a responsibility to make sure their clients’ needs will be met should something happen. In a solo or small firm practice you have the additional pressure of making sure you have something to return to when you are able to do so.
One of the last classes I prepared at PBI, and interestingly, a seminar I spoke at after my departure, was called Conquer Catastrophe: Reviving Professionally and Healing Personally. An audio and book set can be purchased through PBI, if you are interested. The seminar offered a great deal of information about how to deal with an emergency, both professionally and emotionally.
Plan for disaster
No one wants to think about the worst, but as business people and attorneys, we have no choice. We tell our clients, they should have insurance, prepare a will, be prepared, even have a pre-nup, but when it comes to our own mortality, it isn’t so easy to think about. We have no choice, we have to be ready.
There is a lot to think through to make sure your clients and your firm will be protected. You need to consider simple things such as where are the bank accounts and who can pay the bills, to where and how the files are stored and whether enough information is available for each case so another attorney can step in and at the very least obtain delays for your clients.
Start with a list. Sit down and work through everything, and I mean everything, that needs to be covered should something happen. Create the list over a period of time, don’t rush through it, but rather give yourself some time to make sure you think of everything. If you have partners, ask them for their advice. Your entire firm should work together on the plan. If you don’t have partners, ask close lawyer friends.
Condense what you have created into a checklist; and identify what you need to address. Then figure out how to address it.
Who can help?
If you have partners in your firm, the best thing to do is sit down and identify a buddy system. Make sure each attorney has another attorney who knows where everything is and how to access it.
If you are a solo, find another solo you trust implicitly, and be each others’ person in case of emergency. And, especially if you are a solo, make sure people know who they should call. Be sure to tell your spouse (if you have one,) but make sure other people know too, and put notes in a prominent location in your office and on your computer, labeled in such a way to be clear that the documents contain instructions on what to do if you are out of commission.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your assistant, if you have one. Make sure your assistant knows where everything is and who to contact. Make your assistant part of the solution. Also be certain your assistant understands what she may and may not do, in terms of the line of legal practice, so she doesn’t inadvertently overstep any boundaries in a time of potential panic.
Some free help
My partner, Ellen, has written numerous articles over the years on planning for disaster. They are available for free in our store at http://store.freedmanlpm.com.
In addition, Neil Hendershot, the course planner for the Catastrophe seminar, has gathered an incredible number of resources on the wiki he created. Check them out here. Neil’s resources focus on the emotional and professional recovery aspect.
Proper practice management
Keep in mind, a well-organized practice will make both identifying what needs to be covered and having someone else step in much easier. If your filing system is a bunch of paper files on the floor, no one is going to be able to figure out what is going on, and your clients will pay the price in an emergency. If on the other hand you use a proper firm management system you will be a long way to preparing for potential disasters.