- There are numerous considerations for succession planning depending on the size of firm, practice area, systems and more.
Let’s talk about an area that most lawyers avoid ... succession planning. As the ABA notes, “succession planning is essential to every lawyer’s practice, proactively protecting clients and colleagues in the event of the lawyer’s disability or death” (italics added). Planning protects clients, files, colleagues and even your reputation. There are numerous considerations for succession planning depending on the size of firm, practice area, systems and more.
Even if you are in a firm, you need to take heed. Is there a plan? What if the managing partner gets hit by a bus? Do you know what they have been doing? If you rely on a legal administrator, what happens if that person is suddenly incapacitated? If you are a solo or in a small practice, chances are that the lion’s share of responsibility falls on you.
Malpractice. Increasingly, professional liability insurance carriers are requiring that attorneys name a designated backup or successor attorney who is authorized to step in on the insurance application or renewal application. Many lawyers in their engagement letters inform their clients that they have backup counsel; some even let the clients know who that is, just in case.
Knowledge management. Succession planning should start with your operations manual—the guide to how the office runs. If someone leaves, you won’t have to start from scratch if you have an operations (aka procedures) manual. Don’t have one? Start now.
At a minimum, your manual should include procedures on intake and opening a new case, file naming conventions, where to find active and closed cases, your file retention policy, how to close cases and more. (For more information, check out “The Digital Edge” podcast with guest Catherine Sanders Reach about your law firm cookbook.)
Law practice management (LPM) systems. LPM systems are the lawyer’s Swiss Army knife of tools—lifesavers when you need them most. Let’s suppose you are suddenly incapacitated. The firm will need a list of your active cases so it can contact the clients, pick up on deadlines and move forward.
LPM systems have numerous built-in tools to aid in this, including an open matters report. Users may pull up records of the cases an individual recently logged time for; cases on which they are the responsible attorney; data that relates to each active matter including correspondence, calendar deadlines, documents, contacts and connection with the client through the client portal; and more.
Backups. Hopefully you back up all your case files and data on a regular basis in multiple locations. You want to have backup redundancy both in geography (where they are being backed up) and medium (how the data is backed up). You might subscribe to a cloud-based backup system, usually supported by Amazon Web Services, which has built-in geo-redundancies. Do you also want to have a portable hard drive kept in a place distant from your office?
Let’s say that you’ve reached the point where you have a written plan, you’re backing up your data and using an LPM system for digital records. Good start! But you still need a plan to make sure that someone can access your digital records and accounts—or maybe more than one person. What if the person with designated access dies or becomes incapacitated? How do you prepare? Fortunately, there are many categories of tools for documentation, including digital vaults, password managers, digital identity managers, software asset managers, document management systems, and project management and checklists. Whatever you use, the key is that information should be documented, protected and secure, and available when needed.
Digital identity management. Regardless of size, businesses should track, manage, access and document their digital assets. You may already have access to products that can help facilitate this, such as Dropbox Vault or OneDrive Personal Vault. Or you can use digital vaults, some of which even manage “digital inheritance.”
Digital vaults. To protect important documents, both lawyers and their clients should compile information regarding digital assets, such as photos, videos, bank accounts, properties, insurance policies, passwords for social media accounts, etc.
Digital vaults vary by cost, ability to share accounts, security procedures and storage space. Examples within the market include FutureVault (for businesses), LawSafe and Everplans.
Password management software. Password managers are another type of digital vault expressly for login and password information. Some services, like LastPass, have group plans that allow access in case of incapacity/death. If you want to use your password manager as a digital vault to store digital files (attachments) and notes, make sure your plan includes that. Business-oriented password managers like LastPass Business or Dashlane Business have administrative controls that make quick work of changing passwords.
Social media and online accounts; Google Inactive Account Manager. Don’t forget your online presence. Foremost within this category is the domain for your firm’s website and email. The firm’s social media accounts should be considered as well. If you lose your IT consultant or media person, will you lose access to those accounts?
You can store access information in your password manager, but you may also set up additional steps. For example, Google platforms have an Inactive Account Manager where the user can designate what happens after a period of inactivity. Similarly, Apple allows you to add a Legacy Contact through Apple ID.
Software asset management software. Knowing where your firm keeps data also ideally involves knowing how your firm’s computers are configured. To prepare, document software licenses, usernames, installed drivers and service packs for each computer. Belarc Advisor can provide a computer profile summary for an individual computer; for business, you can use companies such as BelManage. Even if you track your hardware and software in an Excel spreadsheet, that documentation may come in handy later.
Circumstances change, and the keepers to your firm’s kingdom may not be around tomorrow to answer questions about how to access important files or data. Literally at the drop of a hat, someone may need to step in to take over client files. While no one likes to consider their mortality, there are processes and tools to help you document your firm’s information and data, and tools to help you protect and secure it. Clearly, information must be safeguarded, but it also must be readily available should the need for access suddenly arise. The discussion above is not an exhaustive list but may help you get started. You can go lower tech by using password-protected Excel sheets or Word documents if you want, but you’ll find tools like digital vaults and password managers make it so much easier and much more secure.