A dear friend and judge was recently diagnosed with cancer. Luckily it was caught early and is treatable. But in a recent discussion with him about his condition and his treatment, he mentioned how lucky he was. Lucky that he had insurance, lucky that he had family, and lucky that he had colleagues who could cover his docket. It made us both wonder about the challenges a solo practitioner might have in a similar situation and how he or she might cope. Bottom line, “[a] solo attorney absolutely must have a strong support network of family and friends, and other attorneys, who can help them in times of personal crisis,” says Shanda Tinney, in a personal story about her own experience dealing with her husband’s illness while trying to manage a solo practice.
David Leffler agrees with that advice, saying “the best backup system you can create . . . is forming a relationship with another solo attorney who has a practice similar to yours.” Make sure the agreement is a formal written agreement, including procedures to follow, compensation, limitation on authority, and a provision that the clients revert back to you once you return.
Most malpractice insurers require a backup attorney or they will not issue a policy for a solo. Why? An attorney’s obligations to clients and the courts are not terminated due to retirement, incapacity, or even death. According to one agency, the backup attorney should know how to access the solo attorney’s calendar and case files. And the solo attorney’s office staff should be aware of the arrangement. In addition to arranging for a backup, another expert suggests making a long and detailed checklist. The checklist should include such things as where to find keys to the safe-deposit boxes and passwords.
And for those occasional sick days or mini-emergencies, solo attorney Joleena Louis has the following tips:
- Develop a roster of colleagues who can cover for you—have many options available.
- Know judges’ rules for adjournments—be sure to notify opposing counsel if you adjourn.
- Be prepared to suck it up and show for your appearance at the tail end of an illness.
- Have a rainy-day fund set aside for missed time at work.
Last but not least, most state and local bar associations have resources to help solo practitioners with disaster and contingency planning. Check out this page from the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association on “what if” planning.