August 15, 2018

New Member Benefit: Law Office Back-up Program

What would happen to your clients if you suffered an accident or became ill and were unable to work?

The purpose of the law-office back-up project is to provide information and a means for members to designate back-up attorneys to conduct affairs on behalf of their clients in the event they are unable to continue practicing due to unexpected death, disability or other incapacity.

Spearheaded by Lanea Witkus, Sullivan County Governor and member of the Board of Governor’s ad-hoc member services committee, the Law Office Back-Up program is a practical response to the need of the bar.

The program provides a simple way for members to document vital information about the location of physical and electronic files, the location of passwords, and names of attorneys who have agreed to step in in the event that the member becomes incapacitated and is unable to handle his/her work.

“This is not only for situations where the attorney passes on, it is for any reason an attorney cannot practice without sufficient warning to make provision for their clients,” said Witkus. “But the inspiration came from Charlie Locke, who [passed] away.

“He was an attorney in our county who was stricken with a fatal and rapidly debilitating cancer. He worked as hard as he could to finish work for his clients in his last days. … His office was closed down by a firm in his building who contacted his clients and transferred files as best they could. …  I have seen other attorneys deal with temporary interruptions from medical treatment, physical accidents, and many other temporary conditions.”

Witkus said she cannot stress enough that having plans in place to cover these types of situations would give attorneys a sense of peace in the event it is necessary for someone to take over.

As an attorney, you know your practice and your clients best; you might choose different attorneys to assist clients in different practice areas. You can also decide whether you have office staff that can assist a back-up attorney.

If peace of mind is not enough to convince you to update your member record with this useful document, consider this:  the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility’s Formal Opinion 92-369 on Disposition of Deceased Sole Practitioners’ Client Files and Property (December 7, 1992) recommends planning for death:

To fulfill the obligation to protect client files and property, a lawyer should pre-pare a plan providing for the maintenance and protection of those client interests in the event of the lawyer’s death. Such a plan should, at a minimum, include the designation of another lawyer who would have the authority to review client files and make determinations as to which files need immediate attention, and who would notify clients of their lawyer’s death. (See the American Bar Association’s “Ethics Checklist for Solo and Small Firm Practice” for more information.)  In addition, if you are a solo-practitioner, your insurance may require you to name a back-up attorney. This form goes further in that you not only name the attorney but also provide important information for that attorney to access necessary records and files.

If you are an attorney and have not thought about what would happen to your clients, colleagues and family if you suddenly were unable to work, this document is a must for gathering the information necessary to ensure continuity in your practice.

If you are approached by a fellow bar member and agree to provide back-up, your name will be recorded in that member’s Law Office Back-up document. In the event the member can no longer provide service to existing clients, you will have the information needed to keep the office open.

Rest assured, this is not a binding document; you may opt out of the responsibility if you can’t perform that function at the time it’s needed.  For that reason, more than one attorney may be approached to serve as the backup attorney.

At the very least, this document is a start for members who haven’t thought about what would happen to their practice in case of emergency.

Members helping members in support of clients and the profession is a sign of the collegiality that has long been a hallmark of the New Hampshire Bar Association. This program ensures that when members step in to help, the process will go as smoothly as possible.

Members can find the Law Office Back-up document and instructions at www. nhbar.org under Resources/Manage Your Practice.