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What’s Your Plan for an Emergency?

When I was 37, I had a heart attack (actually, the doctor initially called it an “event,” which I liked much better than “heart attack”). I landed in the hospital for about 10 days, during which I had quintuple-bypass surgery. Then I spent about six weeks getting fully back up to speed. It wasn’t fun.

It all happened while I was trying a child custody case. It wasn’t one of those fall over and die things. In fact, I was able to finish my trial and drive myself to the hospital. Apparently, I was pretty lucky not to have died during the episode.

Anyway, I was fortunate to be able to leave the office for almost two months without any significant impact for my clients. They barely knew anything had happened. We had a number of lawyers who jumped right in and took over my cases, and things kept moving. It was all good.

Many of us don’t have the infrastructure that allows us to be out of the office for weeks. We need to stay in close contact with our clients and staff, or things come off the rails pretty quickly. That’s a dangerous situation.

Medical emergencies are unexpected. You don’t know they’re coming. That’s why they’re emergencies.

Today’s question is, what are you going to do about covering your clients if you’re unexpectedly out for a month or two?

Do you have a plan?

If not, it’s time to put something together. This is most challenging for solos.

If you’re a solo, I’d suggest you get together with some other solos and build a network to help one another with emergencies. Ideally, you’ll have a few people join up with you in this effort. You’ll need to address the following issues:

1. Decide how you’ll notify one another of the emergency (you need to get spouses/family involved because you might be incapacitated).
2. Explain your systems (calendar, files, docket control, computers, etc.). I’d suggest an “emergency manual.”
3. Identify key staff for coordination. If you each have a staff, it would make sense for those folks to check in with one another periodically just to maintain the network.
4. Address compensation concerns. Who’s going to pay what to whom?
5. Make emergency financial plans. How will you handle short-term cash issues if the practice doesn’t sustain itself?
6. Add everything else you can come up with, and that’s going to be a bunch of stuff.

Ideally, you’ll find backups who are familiar with the law in your practice area. That can be tricky, especially in a small town, because of conflicts issues. You’re going to have to talk through all of this. You’re going to have to build trust to make this work. You’re going to have let go of some of your sense of invincibility because this can really happen. I really couldn’t believe I was lying in a hospital bed with oxygen in my nose!

Working on an emergency plan is unpleasant. It’s not something we want to address. It’s easy to put this on the back burner and ignore it. Don’t do it. Make it a priority. Figure out what you’re going to do if something bad happens. It just might.

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Lee Rosen

Lee Rosen has practiced family law for more than twenty years. With four offices, Rosen Law Firm serves Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rosen served as the Law Practice Management Editor of the ABA Family Advocate for more than a decade and received the ABA James Keane Award for excellence in eLawyering. He served as Chair of the Law Practice Management Section of the North Carolina Bar Association, is a frequent speaker and is often sought out by the media as a source of family law insight and commentary.