No one likes to think about suddenly dying or becoming incapacitated. That is understandable. But stop for a moment. What if this happened to you? How would it affect your family and your clients?
If you don’t prepare for your unexpected death, injury, or serious illness, imagine the consequences. At best the people close to you will face unnecessary difficulties and costs related to your clients’ legal affairs and to the financial aspects of your practice. Your family will have to cope with new responsibilities and financial strain when they are grieving or caring for you. Your clients, whom you have worked hard to protect, may lose rights, money, and their high esteem for you.
What can you do to prepare for the unexpected? Our advice: Fill out a Key Technology Information Form and entrust a copy to your spouse, partner, or trusted friend.
Our focus here is narrow. Collect and secure the key information related to your technology and finances. So much of your critical information is now in electronic form locked with usernames and passwords. It is critical to make sure it is accessible if you are out of action.
This article and accompanying form (you can download the fillable PDF form at www.activeonlineinc.com/forms) give you the tool and the guidance you need. You don’t have to collect all the information at once. Even if you take care of just the key parts now, it will make all the difference in a crisis.
Your personal estate planning and general disaster planning are important, too, but are not covered here. (For more on these subjects, see the articles “How My Emergency Plan Saved My Practice” and “Ready Resources.”)
Protecting Your Family, Your Clients, and Yourself
The Key Technology Information Form provides protection in three ways:
First, when other people step in to manage your practice in a crisis, they need the information immediately. Without it, they face needless delays and frustration. Your family could experience avoidable or unplanned financial losses from unnecessary expenses, uncollected fees, and legal claims.
Second, malpractice claims could be made against your estate if you have not taken steps to protect the legal rights of your clients. If your successors can promptly determine which legal matters need urgent attention, they can take actions to protect the interests of your clients.
Another protection provided by a Key Technology Information Form is securing and preserving confidential and sensitive information both now and later. If you currently have passwords and other private information in insecure places, you are vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, and snoopers. Disasters can also wipe out this key information if you haven’t secured it online or off-site. For now and for unforeseen future events, the Key Technology Information Form assists you in organizing and securing your logins, passwords, and other information.
Beyond these protections the Key Technology Information Form gives you peace of mind. It is a tangible resource for others to use in managing your practice if for whatever reason you cannot. This clarity is a legacy of both tangible and intangible value. The alternative is one of unnecessary work, confusion, and expense.
Key Technology Information Form Contents
Your Key Technology Information Form needs to contain the following information for the people stepping in to run your practice in an emergency:
- backup lawyer and family members to contact if you are out of action;
- passwords and logins for your computers, software, and online services;
- technology companies and contact people who can offer assistance;
- backup systems information needed to recover from various problems and disasters;
- how to use your software to identify and contact your clients and others;
- where to find critical information on clients’ deadlines and the status of your open matters;
- financial information needed to access accounts, pay bills, and pay you and any staff; and
- how to bill your clients for work you have performed but not yet billed.
Completing and Securing the Form
Take the first step by creating and completing page 1 of your Key Technology Information Form. It contains the most critical technology information for your practice. Even a partially completed form will provide invaluable assistance to those who depend upon you.
To complete the Key Technology Information Form:
1. Open or print out the fillable PDF form (www.activeonlineinc.com/forms). One version of the form is for the paid edition of Acrobat, allowing you to fill it in, print it, and also lock the electronic form with a password. Another version works with the free Acrobat Reader, which lets you fill it in and print it, but not lock it.
2. Fill in as much of the form as you can with the information that is readily available. You don’t have to worry about filling in everything right now.
3. Print or make two or more paper copies of the partially or fully completed form.
a. Put one copy in a safe place in your office, and
b. Secure one or more copies off-site at your bank, your home, or the office of a trusted friend or professional.
4. Consider encrypting a copy of the form with a strong password and including it in your online backup. This approach makes it fast and safe to update and preserve updated versions of your form.
5. Tell your spouse, partner, and trusted friend or professional where they can find and how they can unlock your Key Technology Information Form.
Fears and the Real Danger
Writing down all of your most important, secret information and passwords and giving them to someone else can be frightening. What if a thief or snooper gets them? What if the person you give them to misuses them?
Don’t let these fears stop you. Without your passwords and other information, your spouse, partner, or backup lawyer will face serious trouble. Depending on your situation, you could arrange for the information to be stored in a safe deposit box or with a trusted professional to be released only in the event of your incapacity or death. Remember that if you become concerned at some point, you can change your passwords.
The real danger here is putting off this task. Emergency planning never seems very urgent until disaster strikes you or someone close by you. Get this first step done. You will feel good about it.
Backup Lawyer Name, Phone, and E-Mail
You may be highly automated, but your technology needs someone to run it. Write down the names of one or more lawyers and professionals who could step in and manage or assist your practice. Don’t call them now. The important thing is to write down the names and collect the key information now. You can call the lawyers later.
Backup lawyers may be able to assist with your practice while still working full- or nearly full-time in their own offices. They can perform the legal work needed on your active matters or engage other lawyers to do that. An assistant can help the backup lawyer by getting the word out to your clients and performing administrative work.
The particulars of the arrangement for a backup lawyer will vary with each practice. You may want to consider entering into an agreement that takes into account the value of your practice as an ongoing business. As a part of your succession planning, the backup lawyer could have an option to purchase your practice.
Family Contact Name, Phone, and E-Mail
Writing down the names and contact information for family members makes it easy for your backup lawyer or assistants to reach them if something happens to you and to contact them later. It will also cause you to focus on which family members may be most appropriate to assist you and make decisions. Your choices may vary over time, so the Family Contacts section is something to revisit when you update your notebook.
Logins and Passwords
Passwords and logins for computers, software, and online services need to be both accessible and secured. Passwords can be especially problematic. They are used regularly and need to be (or should be) changed periodically.
By all means record your passwords and logins in your Key Technology Information Form, but also take steps to make updated passwords available to people you trust. You can do this by using a password service or program or by updating and securing your form.
A password keeper service such as LastPass, KeePass, or 1Password is a great place to securely store and update your logins and passwords. My preferred service is LastPass; you can use it to log in to websites automatically and to look up your other passwords when you need them. (For more, see below.)
If you use LastPass or some other password application, fill in the name or website address, login, and master password in the Key Technology Information Form.
Do you use a master list of logins (usernames) and passwords, whether paper or electronic? If so, review it to ensure the most important ones are up-to-date. Instead of filling in the password blanks in the Key Technology Information Form, you can keep a copy of your password list with your form.
Software, Services, and Social Media
To let people know about your situation, someone will need your client list. This person may also need access to your website and the social media accounts you use, such as LinkedIn and Facebook. To keep your practice going or wind it up, someone will need to get into your e-mail account(s), client information, billing system, and bank account records. All this information can be recorded in your Key Technology Information Form.
A secure online backup service is now your best defense against an array of disasters. A disaster could take out both you and your office or could occur when you are out of action for an unrelated reason. In either event, someone other than you will need to pick up the pieces. An online backup service allows them to recover all your important files and records.
You don’t want to be the only one with access to your backup systems, so record the logins and passwords in your Key Technology Information Form. If you do not use an online backup service, schedule an appointment with yourself or your technology consultant to sign up for one.
Client List and Matter List
Your Key Technology Information Form should contain brief instructions on how to access information on your clients and matters. Lawyers now have partially or even mostly paperless offices. Some information is in paper form, but much is also stored in software programs, electronic documents, and online services.
Your successor will need to identify client matters that need urgent attention. You should provide instructions on how to produce lists of active clients and active matters. Your written guidance can vastly reduce the amount of busy work and delay that can result for someone who is unfamiliar with your ways of handling legal matters.
Do you have a totally organized office? That is wishful thinking for the great majority of us. Yet no matter how cluttered your office and disk drives may seem, you do have patterns of organization and consistency.
In your Key Technology Information Form, briefly explain where you store paper and electronic documents and files of various kinds. Pay particular attention to identifying where you put your most current and important notes and documents.
Financial Information and Important Records
In order to manage your bank and credit card accounts, your successor will need to know where your financial information and important records are and how to access them. Record this information in your password keeper or in the Key Technology Information Form.
Provide information on where to find important records, both electronic and paper. Banking and credit card records, billing records, accounting information, insurance policies, and investments all may need to be looked into. The location of your estate planning documents, such as your will, health care directive, and power of attorney, should also be listed.
Congratulations! By committing to collecting and securing your key technology and financial information, you are tackling two realities: Life is unpredictable, and we are all mortal. Enjoy the moment when you entrust your Key Technology Information Form to someone close to you. Appreciate that whatever happens, you have taken steps to protect your loved ones and your clients.
Lastpass for Securing Your Logins and Passwords
With LastPass, you use one login and super-secret password to store and protect all your passwords and critical private information.
No one can access the contents of your LastPass account without your master password. Your master password is not known to LastPass administrators, and they cannot recover or restore it.
LastPass allows you to:
- Store all your important logins and passwords safely in one place.
- Get at them quickly using your strong master password.
- Immediately access secure web pages by automatically entering logins and passwords.
- Store notes containing confidential instructions and information.
The service is available in free and premium ($1.00 per month) versions. The free version is fully functional but displays an advertisement on the side of the screen. The premium version supports use on mobile phones. Don’t let the low price fool you.
It makes sense to be concerned about storing your ultra-private information on the Internet through a third party. A careful review of their technology and security should convince even the harshest critic. An exhaustive, independent analysis by computer expert Steve Gibson can be found on YouTube (a transcript can be found at www.grc.com/sn/sn-256.htm).The video is ten minutes long; the discussion starts half-way through.
I recommend using LastPass in place of creating and using your own master list of logins and passwords. You can use LastPass day in and day out on your computer and even on your mobile phone.