What Happens to Your Clients and Legal Staff After You Die or Become Incapacitated?

What happens to your law clients when you become incapacitated, injured, or worst, die? Many of us would rather not think about these worst case scenarios. Fortunately, with some planning, we can actually prepare for contingencies of this nature. In many cases, professional rules actually require attorneys to plan ahead in these circumstances.

Planning for the future helps more than your family members cope, it also helps your office staff members and clients cope with the loss and/or uncertainty. From a practical perspective though, you might already be more prepared than you think when it comes to preparing your clients for the unlikely event of a transition. That is, if you’re already using the right type of immigration software!  The American Bar Association’s Model Rules 1.3: Diligence, 1.4: Communication and1.17: Sale of a Law Practice provide some guidance on planning for these contingencies, though it lacks specific “roadmaps.”

ABA MODEL RULE 1.3: DILIGENCE

The American Bar Association’s Rule 1.3: Diligence states, “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” Comment [5] specifically warns:

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. Cf. Rule 28 of the American Bar Association Model Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement (providing for court appointment of a lawyer to inventory files and take other protective action in absence of a plan providing for another lawyer to protect the interests of the clients of a deceased or disabled lawyer).

How would another competent attorney be equipped and informed to take over your practice? One of the best ways to do so is by utilizing an electronic case management system that enables designated users access to your database to run the necessary reports in your temporary (or permanent) absence.  Read on to learn more.

ABA MODEL RULE 1.4: COMMUNICATION

Rule 1.4: Communication requires an attorney to promptly apprise clients of the status of their cases. Lack of planning in the event of a death or incapacitation leaves your staff with a host of questions. Would your staff know the following answerHow many clients do you have?

  • Which clients are active and which ones are closed?
  • How quickly can all your clients be notified?
  • Which clients had ongoing, upcoming appointments with you?
  • How should your clients be notified? Is there a prepared statement? If so, where can the statement be located?
  • Which attorney/law office will take over your active cases?

Additional, but practical questions include:

  • What type of payment arrangements have you made with this attorney/law office?
  • Will provisions in your will/trust affect the assets at your practice?
  • Will there be more than one attorney/law office?
  • How will your staff be paid? Should they keep working? Will they have a job tomorrow? The next day? The next month?
  • Where would clients send condolences, gifts and flowers?

After considering the above questions, the utility of a case management system begins to sink in (assuming your case management software vendor outlives you!). Your new attorney/law office can do a multitude of activities for a smooth transition:

  • Reports can be generated in seconds to provide data on client types and active/inactive status.  If your current immigration software is not providing you with the reporting you need, have you considered the alternative?
  • You can also notify clients promptly by preparing a template email or document in advance and send it out to hundreds (or thousands) of affected clients, when necessary, in just minutes instead of hours or days.  Does your current method do this now?
  • Consult calendars to determine which clients should be contacted immediately. Authorized users can log in remotely and conduct the necessary due diligence to notify active clients and resume case preparation.
  • The same strategy could be applied to the sale of a law practice (see Rule 1.17).

Technology alone won’t replace an actual plan to prepare for the worst case scenario. However, if you’re reading this article, you’re already one step ahead of the competition.