By K. William Gibson
Dear Readers: I am departing from the usual question-and-answer format for this column to share Uri Feiner's story with you.
What happens when you are too ill to serve your clients? Here's the real story of a son faced with selling his father's firm.
Uri Feiner is not a lawyer, but he learned a great deal about running a small law office during his father's recent illness. Uri's father, Michael Feiner, was a New York immigration lawyer who had experienced serious health problems for several years, but those problems appeared to be under control with regular medical treatment. Michael had expected to get some warning before things got worse, but as it turned out, he didn't get any warning at all before becoming severely ill and unable to work.
The crisis came when Michael developed an infection following one of his frequent medical treatments. He had worked all day on the day before the infection began and was feeling fine, but after the infection set in, he had to be hospitalized. Uri rushed to his father's side. His first concern was for his father's health, but it soon became clear to Uri that he would have to do something to keep Michael's practice going until he got out of the hospital.
As Uri tells it, before becoming hospitalized, Michael had been working on a retirement plan with ABA LPM Section member Steve Gallagher ( www.leadershipcoach.us), a consultant and coach who formerly headed the New York State Bar Association's law practice management office. As part of his retirement plan, Michael had hired an associate, hoping that having another lawyer would allow him to spend less time in the office. The associate quit when Michael became ill, leaving several dedicated paralegals but no lawyers in the office.
Uri hadn't met Steve Gallagher, but one night at the hospital Michael's cell phone rang and it was Steve calling. Steve says he didn't know that Michael was ill and in the hospital at the time, but, as Uri puts it, Steve appeared like a "guide with a flashlight." Uri was confident that Steve would help him find the resources he would need to get through the crisis.
During the first week in the hospital as Michael Feiner lay unconscious in the intensive care unit, Uri was immediately concerned that he would need a guardianship in order to handle his father's affairs. Fortunately, Michael had put his son on as a signer on his business checking account. Uri was able to write checks to pay the staff and "keep things moving in the office," he says. Not only that, but Michael had given Uri all his important passwords and PIN numbers. Uri could handle the business end of things, but he knew that he needed a lawyer to handle client matters, so he contacted the local bar association for a referral.
Uri and Steve met with Allen Charne, the director of Legal Referral Services at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Steve says that Allen helped them connect with several immigration attorneys, and later helped Uri find an attorney to represent him in selling the practice. At that point, their main concern was maintaining ongoing representation by qualified counsel for Michael's clients. With the help of another NYC attorney, James Siegel, they found a lawyer to handle Michael's practice on an interim basis.
While his father was "fighting for his life" in those first few weeks, Uri carried Michael's laptop computer between the hospital and his father's office and was able to log on to the office computer system. Uri says he had personally designed his father's computer system so that Michael could work from home and access his files, and on previous occasions when he had to be in the hospital overnight for treatments, Michael was able to log on and work on client matters from his hospital bed. This capability allowed Uri to do the same thing while he was sitting at his father's bedside during those first weeks of Michael's illness. Uri credits his father's having a computerized case management system with having made "all the difference" during this period.
Fortunately, Michael began to improve and regained consciousness within a few weeks. According to Uri, he got to the point where he could review client files from the ICU, although he acknowledged that it was "tedious and difficult" for him. Uri says that "since my father was barely able to move or breathe, we had to be really efficient" in taking questions about cases to him. Uri had the paralegals prepare daily file notes and questions that could only be answered by Michael.
During this time of improvement, they talked about Michael's health and his need to bring on another lawyer or merge his practice with another firm. Also, Michael signed a power of attorney form "just in case," as Uri puts it, any complications happened during his recovery. Even though he seemed to be getting better, Michael realized that he would need some help, so Uri contacted the New York State Bar Association in hopes of finding a lawyer who knew about transferring law firms. "It is not easy to find such a person, even in New York City," Uri says. Steve Gallagher recommended the NYSB's "Planning Ahead: Establish an Advanced Exit Plan to Protect Your Clients' Interests in the Event of Your Disability, Retirement or Death," which proved valuable to them.
But just as he was preparing to leave the hospital, Michael Feiner lapsed into a coma and never recovered.
After his father's death, it fell upon Uri to make permanent arrangements for his father's practice, to make sure that his staff was taken care of, and that his clients had new representation. On the evening of Michael's death, James Siegel (Uri's contact at the New York Bar Association), went to Michael's office and worked with Uri until late in the night getting things in order so that Uri could leave for Israel for his father's funeral.
The arrangement with the interim lawyer worked out well enough that it allowed them to keep the office open until they were able to merge with another small immigration law firm. A lawyer from what Uri describes as a "new, dynamic, small firm" moved into his father's office and "essentially continued our practice while merging his existing cases into our system." The new lawyer, Yaniv Lavy, was someone with whom Michael Feiner had previously considered teaming up. Uri says that Yaniv Lavy initiated the contact while Michael was still in the hospital after he heard about the situation. "He called because he appreciated my father's role in immigration law, especially among the Israeli community, and was interested in collaborating in some way." He adds that it turned out to be a "perfect match" and the transition has gone "smoothly, better than I had expected."
Uri agreed to stay on with Yaniv as office administrator and reports that he has been able to guide the transition because of his relationships with his father's clients as well as his staff.
Uri says that in addition to giving someone power of attorney, check-signing authority, information about accounts and PIN numbers, he "would absolutely recommend that all lawyers designate someone in advance to take over business operations" in case of a situation such as his father's. "Ideally, when someone has the luxury of planning for something like this, it would be wise to choose someone trustworthy, yet not immediate family, if possible."
That may be true, but every lawyer should be as fortunate as Michael Feiner was to have a son like Uri.