New Year Is Opportunity to Prepare for the Unexpected

Make contingency plans for changes in practice income, focus and staffing

, Daily Report


Photo of J. Randolph Evans and Shari L. Klevens
J. Randolph Evans and Shari L. Klevens

As the new year begins, it's important for all law practices to take stock of 2013, while also preparing for the year to come. This includes assessing contingency plans to cover the unexpected, such as changes in practice income, focus and staffing.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 approximately 20 percent of the United States' work force was at least 55 years old. Notably, as an occupation, approximately 33 percent of attorneys are over 55. As a result, the practice of law has become one of the fields with the highest concentration of what are considered "older" workers.

For a variety of reasons, many attorneys are choosing to delay retirement, if they retire at all. Others work until they are ready to quit and then do. And, unfortunately, there are those who, due to death, incapacity or other reasons, leave the practice of law unexpectedly.

Then there's the one topic few want to talk about—attorney suicide. It is an ever-present risk that continues every year with steady frequency in some of the most unexpected situations.

All of these events have implications that extend well beyond the termination of a business or business relationship.

For attorneys, obligations to clients and the courts extend well beyond retirement, incapacity or death. For example, the attorney-client privilege remains even after either the client or the attorney dies. And potential claims for services rendered years ago remain a risk even after an attorney has retired or died. Because of these unique fiduciary duties, law practices often face some of the greatest challenges in the one area where they are least prepared: the unexpected departure of an attorney.

When unexpected departures happen, an unprepared law practice can be thrown into chaos. And the simple truth is that most firms and attorneys are unprepared.

As a result, many law practices do not have a plan for how to transition cases, who should assume management of the departed attorney's responsibilities, or even who will take the lead in delegating that attorney's work. Most do not keep a list of important information, such as relevant accounts and passwords. Instead, they are left with an inbox full of emails, a file full of contacts that few people know about, and a calendar full of commitments. Those are not enough.

The potential risks associated with this lack of preparedness are obvious. They include a lack of leadership, lost files and documents, missed deadlines and court appearances, a failure to communicate properly with clients, and the inability to access key files and accounts. Thus, the risk of potential malpractice claims is ever present.

There are steps that every law practice and attorney can take to prepare for the unexpected, including the protocols and procedures outlined below. Needless to say, these steps should be tailored to the individual circumstances of each law practice.

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