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IndyBar: Planning Ahead for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

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You are an attorney in a solo practice or small law office, and you know from experience that your presence and attention are required daily. In fact, this state of affairs has repeatedly interfered with vacations and family events. Have you ever thought about what would happen if you were suddenly involved in an accident, or had an unexpected illness, or an untimely death? In such situations, how would your clients fare? Who would cover upcoming court dates? Who would guide clients to new counsel?

On the other hand, imagine you are a lawyer sitting in your office and a new client comes in saying her lawyer recently died and asking if you will handle her case. As you talk with her, you find out no one has been able to locate her files, so in order for you to take her case, you must start from scratch, which, unless you’re willing to work for less, brings up the question, will you charge her for work already done? What do you do now? Take it or turn it away? What if you take her case and find errors in the previous lawyer’s file?

You can find the answers to all these questions and more in “Planning Ahead: A Plan for Protecting Your Clients in the Event of Your Disability or Death,” published by the Indianapolis Bar Association. The book includes sections on why you have a duty to plan ahead and how to do it, frequently asked questions, checklists, sample forms, and helpful resources.

The book’s authors propose that competent legal representation includes making specific plans for how your clients’ cases are handled if you are no longer able to continue practicing law. In planning, you first need to find an attorney to close your practice or take it over until you are able to return. (In the book, this lawyer is called the assisting lawyer.) You and the assisting lawyer then determine the scope of his or her duty to you and your clients and sign a consent form authorizing that lawyer to perform all necessary activities, which might include the following:

• Contact your clients for instructions on transferring files;

• Obtain extensions of time in litigation matters if needed;

• Notify all relevant people about the closure of your practice;

• Wind down your practice;

• Collect fees on your behalf;

• Liquidate or sell your practice.

In addition to spelling out the issues and procedures related to closing a practice and those related to interruptions in a practice, the book discusses matters of ethics and subjects such as access to trust accounts, including contingencies for access and alternatives if you don’t want to allow access to your trust account.

For a free copy of “Planning Ahead” or more information about the book, contact the Indianapolis Bar Association by calling 317-269-2000 or email iba@indybar.org. If you know an attorney who needs the kind of help described in this article, you can also contact Terry Harrell, director of the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, by calling 317-833-0370.•

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