How to deal with practice disruptions

  • July 26, 2017
  • Ann Macaulay

Plenty of things can disrupt your law practice, from unanticipated events like sudden illness or a natural disaster, to more expected things, such as pregnancy or moving your firm to a new location. Fortunately, there’s a great deal you can do to minimize the potential fallout. Planning ahead and being organized can go a long way to keep chaos at bay.

“What’s your plan if you’re hit by a bus?” is the first thing to ask yourself, says former lawyer Joanne Clarfield Schaefer of JSchaefer Coaching in Toronto, who had an unexpected medical leave after depression struck her completely out of the blue.

Clarfield Schaefer advises lawyers to create a list in anticipation of not being able to work, including passwords, phone numbers and names of clients, as well as the key people in your firm. If you can’t communicate and can’t make it in to the office, there should be someone available who knows everything about your practice, she adds. She recommends having what she calls an “emergency ghost,” someone “who you trust with your files and your clients so you can call on them readily to step in if you’re completely incapacitated.” That person should have your password so they can figure things out simply by sitting down and accessing your files.

File everything necessary to create a paper trail (most likely now to be more of a soft-copy trail) of everything you’re working on, Clarfield Schaefer says. Make sure that everything is in order so your “ghost” can immediately come into the office and take over with no damage to clients.

Stay connected to a network of lawyers with similar practices who can share the load in an emergency. “Have a buddy, someone near your call who may be in the same practice area, somebody a couple of years ahead,” Clarfield Schaefer says. She recommends having a board of advisors—a few people you connect with on the phone once a month who are all in the same boat and who can talk about practice issues. “Have conversations with that group about how to manage.”

These people could speak on your behalf to the law firm or to clients if you’re not able to do it yourself. “What is your messaging and who do you trust to really give that messaging?” Clarfield Schaefer asks. “What do you want to tell clients? Are you in a state where you can actually make that decision?”

Kristen Bucci says a big part of her disaster plan is appointing someone she can “trust and count on to pick up the pieces if something were to happen.” Bucci, of Zochodne Bucci Professional Corporation in Thunder Bay, Ont., brings her associate in on every client meeting. “We also go to court together so that she knows the files just as well as I do.”

Bucci also recommends digitizing files as much as possible. “Every single document that comes into this office now gets scanned and saved in a digital file,” she says, to ensure that everyone has access to everything. Make sure that the person in charge of IT at your firm is backing up offsite regularly, preferably every night. If there is a flood or fire at the office, at least the digital files will be available. Bucci adds that it’s important to ensure you have great disability insurance, including coverage for business interruption.

North Vancouver firm Digby Leigh & Company has been on the cloud for several years, so everyone can access files from anywhere in the world. “If a disaster happens now,” says Digby Leigh, “if we have power outages, we go to coffee shops, we go home, we spread out to where there is power and we just keep working.”

Most lawyers will experience a move to a new office at some point in their careers, but there’s usually some lead time before the move and, if organized well, it doesn’t have to be too disruptive. It helps to have an overlap of a month between the old and new offices, says Leigh. He added that his firm managed to move offices a couple of years ago with only half a day of downtime. Starting at noon on a Friday, everything was moved in the new office by six or seven in the evening and unpacked on Saturday. The office was up and running on Monday morning.

Leigh’s biggest tips for a successful move are to plan it early and “organize it like an important closing.” Leigh appointed internal project managers to work with an architect to focus on the details of planning the new space and only involved himself at the highest level.

Similar to moving, maternity leaves are usually planned well in advance. Clarfield Schaefer, who does a lot of maternity leave coaching, advises lawyers to manage expectations before the leave—your own, your clients’ and your firm’s. Think about the implications to your career and what will happen with salary, bonus, hourly rate, performance review and partnership.

Plan when and what you’re going to tell clients about your leave. At least a month before you are due, let them know who will take over their file. Determine the boundaries of the leave and whether you want to stay connected with clients and be copied on their files. Decide whether you want to write or go to CLEs while on leave. “Find a way to stay connected because transition back is difficult,” Clarfield Schaefer advises and recommends staying in touch with someone who can let you know what’s going on at the firm in your absence. This “leave buddy” is “really your water cooler source—what’s going on in the firm, what’s the news, who’s been hired, what’s going on,” she says, so that you don’t feel alienated while you’re away.

The bottom line when it comes to any type of disruption to your practice is that lawyers “have a fiduciary obligation to our clients and we need to make sure that our files are transitioned without any impact or minimal impact on the client,” says Clarfield Schaefer. Look at your responsibilities around that, she adds. “Do you hire somebody on a temporary position? How do you vet them? Are you concerned that they’re going to take your files? These are all questions that you want to address.”

Joanne Clarfield Schaefer’s checklist for managing leaves

  1. Develop a disaster plan that includes your passwords, lists of important phone numbers and clients/key players in your practice.
  2. Ensure business continuity by making sure you have appropriate insurance coverage, off-site back-up data storage, inventory of assets and a who-to-call list.
  3. For both planned and unplanned leaves, nominate an “emergency ghost” who can step into your shoes and pick up where you left off without unnecessary damage/cost to the client.
  4. Find a trusted advisor who can manage internal and external messaging to clients in the appropriate manner for you.
  5. Look into disability insurance to sustain yourself during unanticipated leaves.
  6. Solo practitioners should set up a board of advisors that you connect with monthly to discuss practice management issues, including what to do in case of emergency.

Ann Macaulay is a frequent contributor to CBA PracticeLink.