How do solos and small firm lawyers plan for extended leave when a new member is about to join the family? It can be hard enough to take a vacation!
Fortunately, there are some answers and good resources to draw upon. (Jump to the end of this post.) For now, let’s cover the basics.
Colleagues, Conflicts, and Staffing
The best coverage plan entails having a number of colleagues lined up who are willing to cover your cases. Remember what your parents said? Safety in numbers! If one person can’t cover in an emergency, someone else can. A team approach works best.
By necessity, any lawyers who might work on client matters must be screened for conflicts. Clients need to be notified anyway about your upcoming leave. Use this opportunity to get permission to share information for conflict and representation purposes. (More on this below.)
If you have staff, great! They are a huge help any time you are away from the office, more so during extended absences. They will be a lifeline for everyday communication, including screening mail, email, and calls. If you don’t have staff, consider getting a temp. Having someone who can cover day-to-day operations brings peace of mind and ensures that nothing falls through the cracks.
How Do I Tell My Clients?
One option is to send a letter or email. No surprise there. But is it the best approach?
Most lawyers anticipating family leave have a number of colleagues in mind to assist in covering their cases. This alone can make writing a letter or email complicated and confusing: “I’m going to be out of the office, but you can choose from Lawyer A, Lawyer B, or Lawyer C.” Huh?
Consider picking up the phone instead. Call clients and tell them you are taking a medical leave and why. (Of course, you can omit the “why” part – it is personal and technically no one’s business, but most lawyers taking family leave don’t mind sharing this news.)
Have a conversation with the client about what is happening. Explain your plan, offer a name of a monitoring lawyer (or team of monitoring lawyers), then get consent to screen for potential conflicts and review the client’s case with the monitoring lawyer(s). If everything is a “go,” make sure the client understands and agrees to temporary representation by the monitoring lawyer(s). Don’t forget to discuss how the billing and payment piece will work.
If the client does not agree with your proposed arrangement, you may have to disengage and withdraw from the case. The client will need to find a new lawyer of their choosing.
Confirming Arrangements in Writing
Assuming you call clients to review your plan, sending a confirming email becomes relatively easy:
“As we discussed, I will be out of the office on a medical leave of absence for ___________ (months/weeks). During my leave, I propose that _______________ monitor your file. You agree that I may share information with _____________ so (he/she) may screen for potential conflicts of interest. If no conflicts exist, you agree that I may disclose details of your case to ______________________ for purposes of monitoring your file and attending to any legal work that needs to be accomplished while I am out of the office. If we discover a conflict that prohibits ___________________ from assisting you, I will contact you immediately.
You will receive a separate written confirmation from ___________________ (the monitoring lawyer) confirming the arrangements we have made.
(Describe next how the client will be billed.)
My assistant, _______________, will be available by phone and email should you have any questions while I am out of the office. (Provide your assistant’s contact information.)
Rest assured I will stay informed regarding the status of your case. I anticipate returning to the office on ___________. If for any reason my return is delayed, I will inform you immediately.
(Optional: Please reply to this email confirming your understanding and agreement to this arrangement.)
Fee Agreements and Paying the Monitoring Lawyer
If your existing fee agreement has a provision informing the client that you have made arrangements for someone to cover your practice in the event of illness or disability you have laid the necessary foundation for using a monitoring lawyer. The PLF offers a number of fee agreements and engagement letters that incorporate “assisting attorney” language. For samples, visit the PLF website. Select Practice Management > Forms, then Engagement Letters.
If your existing fee agreement has a contract lawyering provision – meaning the client has consented to use of a contract lawyer at a specified rate – it is easy to have the monitoring lawyer step into the contract role. You may bill the client for contract lawyering services according to your existing fee agreement.
Alternatively, clients can sign separate fee agreements with the monitoring lawyer.
More Answers and Good Resources
There are many excellent articles and resources for lawyers planning family leave:
- Navigating Maternity Leave How to Maintain Your Sanity and Your Career
- How to Succeed after Maternity Leave: Tips for Attorneys and Law Firms
- Mama Solos and the Maternity Leave Mystery
- Maternity Leave for Solo Lawyers: Is It Possible?
- Oh Baby! Preparing for Maternity and Family Leave as a Solo Practitioner
- The Baby and the Solo Practice
- You Have a Baby In Your Office (and other maternity leave ideas)
[All Rights Reserved – 2015 – Beverly Michaelis]