Colorado Supreme Court
Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel
Promoting Professionalism. Protecting the Public.
Succession planning may sound like a daunting subject but if broken down into discrete tasks, it, like so many things, becomes manageable. There are basic steps that you can take today that will make the process easier. This article details some preliminary steps you can take before tackling questions such as who to approach to act as an assisting attorney and who should have authority to access your trust account if you become disabled.
First, if an attorney were to step into one or more of your cases today because you were incapacitated, would he or she be able to rely on your calendar to track upcoming deadlines? Is it a user-friendly calendaring system? If not, spend time now working on getting your calendar current, concise, and intelligible. This will benefit you as you create a succession plan, not to mention your current practice management.
Second, does your trust account ledger clearly identify funds by client and matter? Would someone else be able to accurately return funds to clients or transfer funds to designated third parties if you were no longer available to do so? Attorneys holding property of others should be particularly mindful of how their professional obligations would be fulfilled if they become incapacitated or unexpectedly pass away.
Third, are your client files organized? Is it clear which client matters are open and which are closed? Do they document correspondence and conversations with your clients and opposing counsel, including your most recent interactions? Are court orders arranged so that the progression of the case is apparent? Do client files detail documents or client property you have received and are holding? Does the client file have current client contact information? Think about your filing system from the perspective of someone who has to take possession of client files in an emergency. Make sure the filing system is comprehensive and comprehensible.
On a related matter, to the extent you are holding other client property, including original documents, do you have a reliable system for identifying, securing and locating that property? Consider what would happen if a client needed an important document from you and that document could not be accessed because it was buried in a file, or elsewhere, and only you knew the location. Take time now to implement a system to inventory, and when appropriate, return, client property and papers.
Fourth, think about your billing and time entries. Are both current or are you days or weeks behind? Do you regularly provide clients with invoices showing hours worked and tasks performed? Do you reconcile your trust account on at least a quarterly basis? These are important administrative aspects of running a practice whether or not you are preparing a succession plan. Making sure you and your staff perform them on a consistent basis will benefit whoever assists in taking over or shutting down your practice.
One way to prepare someone to take over or wind down your practice is to create an office procedure manual that discusses how to use your calendaring system, how to organize active client files, how you handle billing, and where to locate any original client documents, among other things. The Checklist for Lawyers Planning to Protect Clients’ Interests in the Event of the Lawyers’ Death, Disability, Impairment or Incapacity, Chapter 3 of the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel’s handbook on succession planning, outlines information you might want to include in such a manual.
This handbook may be accessed here: Planning Ahead: A Guide to Protecting Your Clients' Interests in the Event of Your Disability or Death (One of Which is Inevitable). Beyond discussion of these preliminary activities, this handbook has an array of information and forms to assist lawyers with succession planning. Upcoming newsletters will explore additional succession planning topics.