This annual “What’s Hot? What’s Not?” issue of Wisconsin Lawyer is one of my favorites. Not only is it an exceptionally accessible resource for lawyers hoping to stay current with the ever-changing business of practicing law (both nationally and in Wisconsin), its extra helpings of trends and predictions allow us, at least momentarily, to become futurologists – and that just sounds cool.
It got me thinking, though, whether there are any predictions we could make that we know absolutely will come true. It turns out there is – and it is an important one: Some day, for one reason or another, you will no longer be practicing law. Perhaps you will have an ideally planned retirement – but perhaps not. No one likes to think about bad things happening to them, especially disability or death, but as lawyers, it is our ethical responsibility to ensure our clients will be taken care of should something happen to us. See SCR 20:1.3, ABA Comment .
So, whether you have been practicing for one month or 60 years, make sure you have a plan for succession. This is relatively simple if you work in a larger firm and your engagement agreements state that your clients are clients of the firm, but if you are a solo lawyer, or in a practice where individual lawyers tend to operate in separate silos, here are some simple tips to get you started.
Find a Successor
Find a lawyer who you trust, who would be willing to manage your files and handle (or find someone else who can handle) any outstanding matters. You may have done this long ago when you first obtained malpractice insurance, but you should make sure that this person is still your person, and keep that record up to date. If you are having trouble convincing someone to be your successor, try to seal the deal by offering to be his or her backup.
Make Records Accessible
Make sure you have easy-to-find information for your successor, including instructions for how to access your files, both paper and electronic (see checklist for more). If, like most people, you find it difficult to keep your list of passwords current, try using a password manager such as LastPass or 1Password.
Tison Rhine is the advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411™). Reach him at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6012, or by email.
A password manager will keep all your passwords and other vital information in one place, so you just need to worry about remembering (and providing your successor lawyer with) one master password.
Make It Easy for Your Survivors to Get Paid
Prepare a document naming your legal successors in interest (so anyone handling your files knows where to send incoming fees), and make sure your successor lawyer has this information.
Put Your Plans in Writing
Discuss and formalize your arrangement with your successor lawyer, through either a power of attorney or another type of agreement. This will make everything go much smoother, for the courts, your successor lawyer, and you and your family.
Check the Supreme Court Rules
Familiarize yourself with SCR chapter 12, which deals with trustee appointment. This will be particularly helpful if you have been asked to step in for a lawyer who did not have a succession plan. Consider volunteering to be a trustee in your area. Judges will appreciate it, and judicial appreciation is always good.
In general, ask yourself what specific information someone would need if he or she were to step in and attempt to take care of your clients (and your business) on a moment’s notice. Succession planning is too important to put off, so if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the State Bar Practice411™ for assistance.
A Checklist for Your Successor
To get you started, here’s a short list of the types of information every lawyer should find and make accessible to his or her backup person.
- Names and contact information for staff members
- Locations of financial accounts, account numbers, and passwords for online access
- Insurance carrier(s) information
- Life insurance
- Disability insurance
- Directions for accessing computer software
- Email login and password
- Server login and password
- Accounting and billing software login and password
- Calendaring software login and password
- Locations and information about offsite storage
- Information about monthly bills (including due dates)
- Office equipment under lease
- Internet, phone, and utilities
- Other logins and software
- Payroll taxes
- Credit card processing
- Online document storage and management