While planning for retirement is a given for most attorneys, planning for a sudden disaster like death or disability is likely not at the forefront of many professionals’ minds. But for lawyers running solo or small firms, it’s essential to be prepared for the worst, attorney Kevin F. Bress, a member at Pessin Katz Law in Towson, said at a Maryland State Bar Association conference on Friday.
Bress, who handles estate planning issues, recounted a memorable case of his in which a lawyer died at his desk in his law office, leaving among his assets four numbered safe deposit keys. Although the lawyer had two associates who “greatly mitigated” the potential damage to the practice after his death, the lawyer’s daughter never found the safe deposit boxes despite traveling from bank to bank in the city where he practiced in search of them, Bress said.
“Really, what you’re doing is not for yourself — it’s about your family, it’s about your friends,” he said during a session at the MSBA’s 16th Solo and Small Firm Conference. “It’s about maximizing the value of your practice.”
To start, every solo or small firm should create a “disaster control manual” to ensure the practice can continue to operate and serve clients in the aftermath of an attorney’s death or incapacity, Bress said.
The first component of that manual should be the contact information for someone who can handle the immediate needs of the firm and make sure it’s open to clients as soon as possible, he said. In the case of a solo practice, that might be an office manager or receptionist.
If the lawyer has planned ahead even further, that person might be what Bress called a reciprocating attorney — a lawyer who’s agreed to take on the immediate needs of the firm in the event of a catastrophe.
“You could say, ‘You’re across the hall from me, or we’re old buddies from law school — maybe we should have a pact that one of us will step in for the other, not necessarily to take over the practice, which would be great, but to help facilitate the disposition of that practice,’” Bress said.
However, Bress said, it’s important to remember that client confidentiality rules prevent your reciprocal attorney from automatically taking over your cases. Instead, he or she must first contact clients to inform them of your death or disability and give them the opportunity to authorize the reciprocal attorney to maintain those files.
There are a myriad of other concerns facing an attorney or family member who must handle the fallout from a solo practitioner’s sudden death, many of which can be accounted for in the “disaster control manual,” Bress said. These might include finding the security code for the office, handling incoming phone calls to the firm, contacting an IT manager to update the firm’s website or direct client inquiries, and accessing the lawyer’s trust account.
“The discussion today with your bank would be, ‘What if I drop dead today, what does it take for somebody to be able to use an account to pay a filing fee or refund a client’s money?’” Bress said.
To maximum a firm’s value in the event that its sole partner dies or is suddenly unable to practice, it would be wise for that attorney to consider who is his or her ideal successor and get a contract for a sudden transition in place, he said.
“Some lawyers run their practice right down to zero, they don’t keep up aggressive marketing and their practice is dwindling. It’s a great idea to think about who’s going to be your sidekick, who you’re going to groom to move up to own the practice,” he said. “If you’re disabled overnight, you can already have prenegotiated how that transition’s going to take place.”