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December 11, 2006

Who Will Take Care Of My Clients When I Can't?

Connecticut Law Tribune - 2006

You’re a solo practitioner. You want to take a well deserved vacation or you need surgery or you’ve just had your first child and want to be home for the first eight weeks. Who will take care of your clients?

This is a very real concern for most solos and for the clients who hire these solos. According to the 2003 Census, 73.7% of all private practice attorneys in the United States are in law firms of " 1 - 4 employees."

More than 52% are solo practitioners. There is obviously a workable solution to these very real life situations or more than half of all attorneys in private practice would be unable to take a vacation, have surgery or be home for their newborn.

When you made the decision to be a solo practitioner you made the conscious decision to own and operate your own business. You deliberately opted out of receiving the few remaining fringe benefits of being an employee. As your own boss you realized you have to network with other attorneys for a variety of reasons, referral work, peer-taught legal education and comradery. Another significant reason to network is to create a coterie of other solos or small firm practitioners who will cover for you should you need to be away from your office for personal reasons.

In the instance of a planned vacation for a finite period of time, you will have advised your clients of your absence, rescheduled any courts appearances, any crises will be directed to a fellow lawyer you trust to handle your clients in your absence (because, naturally, you will have offered reciprocal coverage to this lawyer). But most importantly, when you first took on any of your clients you will have advised them, whether they asked or not, (because it will always be in the back of their mind), that should you, for whatever reason be unable to attend to their matter, you keep a meticulous file documenting everything pertinent to their case which will be entrusted to a fellow lawyer whom you work with on a regular basis. This understanding between you and your client will have been established at the time of your being retained so there will be no surprises.

Should you have an extended absence due to an emergency you will have created the same relationship with another lawyer for this type of event. The difference, however, is I recommend you have a written agreement with this lawyer regarding handling your clients, any payment of fees for coverage, and/or permanently transferring of files if needed depending upon the length of your absence or incapacity, (remembering that clients are "at will" and could leave you for this lawyer permanently, regardless or any arrangement). Any other terms of "temporary" representation you and the other attorney agree upon should be incorporated as well. Yes, there are many details and considerations but they are too numerous for this column.

You will also have to expect to lose some new business. I went into labor with my son two weeks earlier than expected and it happened so quickly (thank goodness) there was no opportunity to make arrangements over the next twenty-four hours. On the unplanned day of delivery I received two new client calls. I returned the calls the day I came home from the hospital but the potential clients had moved on. Had they called when I was supposed to deliver I had coverage. You will lose some business. That’s life.

When a client wants you this is their thought process, "I need an attorney now." "I called you." "You weren’t available or you didn’t call me back quickly enough" (or give me a satisfactory reason to wait.) "So, I called the next attorney on my list." "I don’t need you anymore." Therefore, you have to be able to address your client’s sense of urgency even when you are not available.

I have a relationship with one fellow solo whereby I interview her new clients at her office while she is away or on trial and secure the representation for her when she returns. I collect the consultation fee for my time and she retains the client. Why miss out on new business or disappoint a potential client who came as a referral simply because you are away or unavailable? You don’t have to lose business or eliminate a vacation if you are smart about it and respect the urgency your client feels. Once you have your system in place, you can, as a solo, take time to enjoy life, too. This is why networking with other solos and small firms is key to your success both personally and professionally. It allows you to maintain your business, integrate with your peers and keep your sanity.

We are in a service business. If your client’s are serviced without compromise it doesn’t matter if you are a solo or office of 1000 lawyers. With smarts and creativity you can function in the eyes of your client and the legal community as a larger firm without all the complications of a professional marriage while still enjoying time away from the office.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2005) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

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