[Reprinted from the Wisconsin Lawyer Magazine. Copyright by the State Bar of Wisconsin]
What Keeps You Awake at Night?
How can I keep my practice going if I need to be away for an extended time?
I have a solo practice, and I’ve been able to manage a few short vacations. But what should I do to keep my practice going if I have to be away for an extended time, either for a personal illness or for some other reason?
Are there different ways to cover a planned versus an unplanned absence?
- Plan for an Unplanned Absence
- Respond to our next question
Remote Access Keeps Solo Current
There are two types of solo practitioners. One has staff and the other doesn’t. That makes a difference. When I’m away from my office, my staff emails to me all of my phone messages. (They also do it when I am not away.) If you don’t have staff, you’re going to have to access your voice messages by telephone from a remote location. The technology for doing so has been available for many years. When I am outside the United States, I sometimes purchase a phone card that costs pennies a minute. I have never bought more than $20 worth, which has lasted me two weeks.
Most importantly, you need to be able to access your computer. With my iPod Touch, I use Remote Light because I operate on Windows XP (there is a free app and one for $5.99.) From other computers, such as my laptop or netbook or in the business room at most hotels and motels, I use GoToMyPC. I have prepared briefs, requested extensions, written emails to other attorneys and clients, prepared letters and emailed them, and on occasion have printed documents for signing by staff. I also charge my time remotely.
Michael Ablan, LaCrosse; www.ablan.com
Develop Back-up Relationships with Other Lawyers
First, every solo practitioner should have a relationship with another lawyer as a backup in the event of emergencies. Multiple areas of practice, such as real estate and family law, might require different â€œgo toâ€ lawyers for each area. The other attorney might also be interested in a mutual go-to agreement. This is where your local bar association can be useful; your secretary should always have a go-to number when you are unavailable.
When I planned a long leave of absence some years back, I did several things.
- I reviewed all my files and prepared a color-coded summary sheet stating for each case the facts of the case, the current status (for example, the next court date), and other important information. I also added key contacts and phone numbers. Today these things can all be done electronically and saved on a thumb disc (or flash drive) for easy transportation.
- I communicated with my clients and informed them of my expected absence and who their contact would be. It is the client’s prerogative whether to accept the designated contact or hire a different lawyer. Had any of my clients decided on a different lawyer, I would have cooperated immediately in transferring their files.
- I tried to get adjournments for cases requiring court appearances so that another lawyer would not have to make appearances on my behalf.
- For some of my cases, I was able to work from home and so made arrangements to get information transferred to my home and made sure my clients knew how to reach me.
- I was fortunate to have an office-sharing arrangement in which the office secretary would still be available to me during my absence. I provided contact information and made arrangements so the secretary would know how to handle incoming calls. If an attorney does not have such a luxury, a good message on the answering machine will have to suffice. The message should indicate when the attorney will be gone and when he or she will return.
Patricia Jursik, Jursik & Jursik, Cudahy;
Business Model Covers Lawyer Absence
Professional coverage for vacationing or incapacitated lawyers is an interesting concept. I come from a 2.5 lawyer shop. Most of my private practice experience has been in small shops. A small office can cover a vacationing partner or one on military duty. A solo can’t. Local lawyers will usually step in to handle emergencies during short absences but a longer absence can be problematic.
I originally formed Discovery Masters with the idea of helping solos who are suddenly overwhelmed with a complex litigation matter. I quickly found there was a need to also help lawyers who plan on being away for weeks or months. The â€œlawyer down the hallâ€ often can handle short absences. Finding reliable coverage for longer periods is difficult.
My company tailors coverage. I found some folks just want the peace of mind of knowing that an experienced lawyer is available to handle emergencies. Others want someone to cover routine court appearances, answer the telephone, and file motions to continue in the event of unforeseen problems.