Planned or Unplanned Absences: Why you need an Inventory Attorney

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Planned Absences

Everyone deserves a vacation. If you have a solo practice, how do you manage a few short vacations during the year? How do you keep your practice going? What if you have to be away for an extended time, either for a personal illness or for some other reason? Are there different ways to cover a planned versus an unplanned absence?

There are two types of solo practitioners: ones with staff and ones without staff. This distinction makes a difference in how you handle planned and unplanned absences.

If you have staff, s/he can e-mail your phone messages, scan your mail, and file it in your directory. If you have remote access to your computer system (e.g., GoToMyPC), you are always in touch with your office. While you are on vacation, your office is open, but most work is put on hold until you return.

Lawyers in solo practice, as well as many other types of professionals, choose to close the office when they are on vacation. Arranging to go on vacation is a challenge, but not one that is insurmountable.

Every solo practitioner should develop a relationship with another lawyer who can function as your backup during short vacations or in the event of a short-term emergency. If you handle more than one type of law, such as elder law and social security law, you might require more than one lawyer to handle emergencies in your absence. This lawyer may be, or may not be, your Inventory Attorney.

When planning a vacation or brief leave of absence, be sure to take these steps:

  1. Review all files and prepare a summary of each matter. The file list should include all client contact information. If you do not have remote access to your files, leave several copies (digital and paper) of this information in your office, but also take a copy with you on a flash drive.
  2. If you are one of those lucky lawyers who leave on vacation the same time every year, you can incorporate this information into your representation letters and website. If not, you must communicate your plans well in advance. This includes clients and key vendors.
  3. Block vacation time on your calendar so that you, or your staff, do not inadvertently schedule meetings, appearances, or deadlines, or accept new work during this period. If you have another lawyer who will watch over your practice during your absence, make certain that s/he has also blocked this time off his/her calendar as a period that they may not be away!
  4. Send reminder letters to clients and key vendors at least 30 days prior to your departure. In the letter, be sure to provide the name and contact information for the lawyer who has agreed to cover emergencies.
  5. Notify your Inventory Attorney of your plans in the event you are delayed in returning to your practice and your backup lawyer is no longer available.

Unplanned Absences

A well-thought out plan brings honor to your profession, protects your clients, and can save you and your loved ones from a difficult burden. Be sure you have appointed an Inventory Attorney. Visit the Bar’s website section on the role of the Inventory Attorney:

Put your plan in writing. Include potential situations where you wish your Inventory Attorney to assume control of your practice, as well as potential situations where your inventory is not needed, but a temporary office closure is warranted. Identify who should be notified and how, including clients, courts, other attorneys, service providers, and so on. Your plan should address your professional responsibilities to clients and office management aspects of your practice.

The firm’s representation letter might include this provision: “Our firm’s objective is to provide you with excellent legal services and to protect your interests in the event of my unexpected death, disability, or unexpected absence for any reason. Therefore, I have arranged with another attorney to assist you should I be unable to do so. If that were to happen, my assistant or the assisting attorney would contact you and provide you with information about how to proceed.”

Do not forget these important steps in your plan to cover unplanned absences:

  • Prepare a list of current, active clients, courts, opposing lawyers, regulatory agencies, banks, and suppliers to notify promptly of your absence.
  • Prepare a list of closed client files, their location, and how to access them.
  • Determine the fee arrangement between you and your Inventory Attorney.
  • Determine the circumstances under which access to your trust account should be given to your Inventory Attorney and other important backup help, such as your accountant.
  • Provide access to and passwords for your office procedure manual, calendar, contact information, email, voice mail, and business and accounting records. Therefore, update procedures and passwords on a regular basis.
  • Provide information about bank accounts and trust accounts, so that your Inventory Attorney, and perhaps your accountant, can access them as necessary.
  • Designate an accountant or third party to work under the direction of your Inventory Attorney to help with billing and collections, and long and short-term accounts payable. This means you will have to maintain an up-to-date accounts receivable and accounts payable schedule with appropriate contact information.
  • Provide information and access to your post office box, safe deposit box, office safe, and locked file cabinets.
  • Make a will or estate plan, so that decision-making authority over your estate and your law firm can be coordinated between your Personal Representative and Inventory Attorney.

Regardless of whether you are contemplating a much-needed vacation, or are worried about your clients and your law practice in the event of an unforeseen disaster, it is critical that every lawyer have a plan to cover voluntary absences and a disaster plan to cover unplanned absences.