American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division

Rating Abilities

By jennifer j. rose

Sooner or later-and almost always when it's least expected-nearly every lawyer faces some kind of disability. It might be a bout of flu or as disastrous as waking one morning in a chronic vegetative state. (I just hate when that happens.) The ability to plan for and cope with these distractions can spell continued success for the practice; failure to develop contingency plans can lead to ruin.

Now, there are disabilities you can live with and those that simply kill you. Obviously, dead lawyers rarely concern themselves with the continued success of a law practice. But for the survivors, disabilities generally fall into two categories-short-lived or permanent. A broken leg means one thing to an office practitioner, but something else to a trial lawyer who has to drive 50 miles to a courthouse. Within a few months, though, both lawyers are back on a level playing field. Permanent disabilities, on the other hand, bode significant changes in the way a lawyer practices, and even the kind of law practiced.

Few of us can guess when a crisis will occur, but some disabilities are fairly predictable. Pregnancy can limit a lawyer's physical ability to practice, but it almost always gives its owner nine months' warning. It's those unanticipated events that demand serious fail-safe planning.

How intense is the disability? Is it a minor, perhaps merely frustrating, limitation, which might limit some aspects of practice? Or will the affliction globally impact the practice? Lawyers are expected to be tough souls, but that same bravado keeps many from acknowledging limitations. And that failure to bail out can spell disaster. Whether it's a matter of simply seeking continuances, referring some clients and cases to other counsel, or deciding what part of a practice can be salvaged, it can call upon the skills of battlefield triage.

Not all disabilities are a matter of mind over body. Substance abuse and cognitive impairment are often only recognized by others. Some forms of mental illness render a lawyer about as cognizant of disability as one of those pesky, irreversible comas. Knowing when to accept another's evaluations of your ability to practice law can make the difference between a graceful exit or having your practice stripped away by disgruntled clients and disciplinary authorities.

How a lawyer countenances disability can make all the difference in the world when it comes to preserving a practice, protecting clients and family, and upholding the value of a lawyer's reputation.

jennifer j. rose, editor-in-chief of GPSolo, lives in Mexico, and can be reached at jenniferrose@abanet.org.

 

 

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