What happens to your law practice and clients when sudden tragedy strikes you, and your office is thrown into chaos and uncertainty because of your death, disability or acute illness? On many occasions over the past year, Lawyers Mutual has seen the extreme difficulties caused for some of our insureds or their loved ones by such unexpected events:
- A 55 year old senior partner was forced to retire suddenly from his three-partner firm because of an aggressive, and ultimately fatal, cancer leaving his other partners to handle his open files.
- After a 64 year old solo practitioner suffered a severe stroke, his spouse was faced with the dilemma of whether to close his practice or try to keep it open for him should he ever recover enough to practice again.
- A 37 year old solo practitioner was diagnosed with a rare cancer, and his surgery and subsequent treatments will leave him unable to attend to his law practice for many months.
- A 57 year old lawyer with a thriving family law practice died at her desk, leaving her partner to absorb dozens of open files on top of the heavy caseload the partner already had.
Unless you and your law firm have an Emergency Plan, events such as these could result in material harm to your clients’ matters and untold heartache for your law partners and family.
The Ethics Rules contemplate such an Emergency Plan as inherent in our ethical obligation to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing clients, as stated in Comment 5 to Ethics Rule 1.3:
To prevent neglect of client matters in the event of a sole practitioner’s death or disability, the duty of diligence may require that each sole practitioner prepare a plan, in conformity with applicable rules, that designates another competent lawyer to review client files, notify each client of the lawyer’s death or disability, and determine whether there is a need for immediate protective action.
Such an Emergency Plan is essential for a lawyer to have in place to minimize and mitigate any adverse consequences that the lawyer’s unexpected circumstances might cause to his or her clients. A simple checklist for items that all solo or small firm Emergency Plans should have in place includes the following:
- Copy of bank’s forms for trust account access for the Emergency Attorney.
- Power of Attorney authorizing the Emergency Attorney to run the business as needed, including as trust account signatory.
- List of passwords for computer, email, smartphones, and online bank accounts.
- Updated list or spreadsheet of all client files that need to be transferred or closed.
- Instructions for family and personal representative of your estate about the responsibilities of the Emergency Attorney.
- Contact information for the Emergency Attorney.
- Updated list of firm contacts such as clients, employees, vendors, insurers, etc.
- Draft of letters to clients re notification about deceased lawyer and authorizing release of client file to the Emergency Attorney.
You should start developing your Emergency Plan by referring to the Lawyers Mutual risk management handout -- Closing A Law Practice: Through Retirement, Moving to a New Firm, or Death of a Fellow Lawyer. The forms and resources referred to in the handout should help you recognize the many issues that unexpected tragedy can cause and devise a plan that fits your firm’s needs. Should you need additional advice or resources as you are formulating or implementing an Emergency Plan, feel free to call our claims attorneys at Lawyers Mutual.
Another resource is to contact Camille Stell or Patrick Brown in our Client Services Department to conduct a Practice Management Review with your firm. One piece of such a review would include emergency planning. You are never too young or too healthy to have a firm emergency plan.
Warren Savage joined the Lawyers Mutual as claims counsel in 2005. He focuses on litigation, criminal defense, appellate advocacy, and professional responsibility in his work with Lawyers Mutual. A former partner with the law firm of Bailey & Dixon in Raleigh, Warren graduated from the University of Virginia and earned a Master of Arts in Teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before graduating magna cum laude from Campbell University School of Law. He spent several years as a high school English teacher. Contact Warren at 800.662.8843 or email@example.com.