Volume 12, no. 4
When a Health Crisis Interferes with Your Practice
By Joan M. Swartz
I remember bits and pieces of the news two years ago. It’s cancer; it’s rare; it’s aggressive. Our 15-year-old son would have to undergo a neck dissection and the doctors would “go from there.”
I am a solo lawyer, with a full-time and a part-time employee. My husband owns his own business, with a partner and one employee. The news rocked our world to the core. Aside from the emotional aspect (Is there a book that tells you how to handle this?), the effect on my law practice was immediate.
First, I assessed my firm’s overall capabilities. I am very fortunate in many ways. I have a full-time assistant whom I trust implicitly and who knows what is and what isn’t a priority. We met at length about what had to be done in the next six weeks, next six months, and over the next year. We’d implemented a case-matter log that we update periodically. It contains deadlines and action items, and identifies the staff member responsible for each item. The log became our manual. Anything she or our law student could do they did, and I reviewed drafts.
I informed my clients of the problem. The decision was made after much discussion. I represent a number of small businesses and some individuals. In the end, I decided if I wanted their understanding on deadlines and expectations, I had to tell them the challenges I faced. I also had to allow them to decide whether their problem needed another lawyer.
We evaluated cases for both merit and time commitment and had a back up plan for the worst-case scenario. If I could not commit the time, we declined representation and referred the prospective clients to capable lawyers. On every case I took that year, I told clients I might bring in another lawyer for backup and got permission to do so in advance.
We set realistic time deadlines for every task and communicated that to our clients and opposing counsel. This was the most important aspect of our planning. I had to step back and think how long it would take me, and then I added seven to 10 days as a cushion. Looking back, no current clients left our practice during this period. We did, however, withdraw from two cases where the client was not cooperating. This was part of our effort to prioritize time and resources.
I upgraded technology so I could work while traveling with my son if time and circumstances permitted.
I worked when I was able , took turns with my husband traveling to our son’s experimental vaccine treatment six states away, and told judges and clients why I was out. Only once did an opposing counsel try to push me to trial. On a cell phone call from Virginia, while visiting the hospital where my son received his vaccine treatments, the judge gladly granted my request for a continuance.
I scaled back some bigger plans. I was discussing purchasing a building with the lawyers next door. I begged off, deciding that the time for such a large financial commitment was not right in the event either I or my husband had to stop working to provide full-time care for our son.
I analyzed my commitments to professional organizations and eliminated some. I had just completed my year as president of our local bar association, but was the current president of our bar foundation. I called our executive director and advised him of the issue. He ran interference for me on some matters. I asked for help from the board of the foundation and offered to resign. I did the same thing on another, more demanding municipal board and resigned from that board’s committee work. I think I missed a couple meetings that year, but in reality nothing changed in delivery of services for either organization.
I bought good disability insurance for me and my husband. Lesson learned. I evaluated our life insurance and bought more. I also engaged a financial planner with my husband to pool all our funds into one cohesive plan, set priorities for the future, and try to collect enough money to care for our son if he becomes disabled. And, yes, my husband and I finally did an estate plan.
We got lucky. Our son is 28 months from diagnosis, 27 months from surgery, and just completed his vaccine regimen. My practice has grown to accommodate another full-time lawyer despite these challenges. The plans made in crisis are still in place and use today.
Joan M. Swartz, a former partner in a law firm, started her solo practice in March 2000 in St. Louis, Missouri. She concentrates on small businesses as well as real estate, contracts, and civil litigation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.