Lawyers warned to prepare for the worst

When Toronto lawyer Lorisa Stein vowed to live a healthier lifestyle on New Year’s Eve in 1992, she had no idea just how much her career as a family lawyer would change.

“I vowed not to be a couch potato by the time I retired,” she said. “So I started trying as many new sports as I could. Nearly 10 years later, I was rock climbing, my partner wasn’t paying attention, and I fell from the wall onto a metal structure. I suffered 12 injuries in total from the fall.”

Over the next seven years, Stein, who had been a busy family lawyer with a steady practice, visited countless doctors, went through months of intense physical rehabilitation, and saw her career as a lawyer start to fade before her eyes.

“For seven years, I was absent two to three days a week or more from my practice.

I had to learn how to write with my left hand, how to use voice recognition on my computer, and spoke to clients during the few times where I could work,” she said in recounting her story during a session at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s solo and small-firm conference on May 31.

“At the end of it all, I decided I had to look at what I could do and readjust my practice into something that would work for me or risk losing it.”

That led Stein to found her Toronto family law and collaborative practice in 2007.
“I realized that this is what was going to work for me and I went for it,” said Stein, who has returned to full-time practice.

“When things happen unexpectedly, returning to work doesn’t happen all at once and I had to learn that I can’t do everything. But it also taught me the importance of preparing for when something does go wrong.”

Stein suspects many lawyers are afraid to address what will happen to their law practices if, like her, they’re unexpectedly unable to continue working.

But Stein, a speaker at a conference session aimed at preparing lawyers for major practice interruptions, said fear shouldn’t stop lawyers from considering the unexpected.

“If you get nothing else from my story, please know that unexpected things can happen to you and it’s so important to have a plan even if it just involves keeping your files current while you’re away or having a robust office manual to ensure your practice runs smoothly.”

Dan Pinnington, vice president of claims prevention and stakeholder relations at LawPRO and a speaker at the event, said he has seen how fear can have significant consequences for lawyers and their firms.

Still, he said, many lawyers don’t seem to be getting the message.

“More than three-quarters of attorneys don’t have power of attorney or appropriate clauses in their will that would allow someone to take over their practice in the case of their death or
serious injury,” said Pinnington.

“We tend to fool ourselves into thinking these types of large disasters won’t happen to us, but as you heard from Ms. Stein, they do. Time and time again, I’ve seen when there isn’t a plan in place and disaster hits, practices tend to disappear.”

Pinnington said lawyers can create two types of plans to prepare their practices for the unexpected. The first, a contingency plan, would allow lawyers to continue their practice in the case of a sudden serious injury.

The second, a succession plan, would allow another lawyer to come into the practice and take over in the event of death.

“In both cases, you need to consider who would be the best prepared to take over your people, your practice, and your infrastructure,” said Pinnington.

“You also need to make sure you have insurance in place that includes commercial, liability, and ideally business-interruption insurance. Barring that, having a backup office buddy that could let you use their office in case of an emergency is also a good idea.”

Ian Hull, a speaker at the event and cofounder of Hull & Hull LLP, said that while many lawyers often want to avoid talking about death and wills, not doing so could lead them onto a dangerous path.

“We all know clients who do their best to avoid making a will but we as lawyers tend to do that, too,” said Hull. “We don’t want to talk about death but we’re walking down a  
dangerous path if we don’t address what could happen.”

Hull, who practises extensively in trusts and estates law, noted his best advice to lawyers who want to protect their practice in case of an emergency is to find the simplest path.

“Try to figure out and manage whichever approach is best for your practice. Start by picking someone as your executor who you know could be comfortable in your practice and will know about that area of law. Also, make sure taking over your practice will be financially profitable for them.”

Robert Coates, a lawyer at R.G. Coates Estate Law Professional Corp., says he’ll take that advice to heart.

“I’m going to go back to my office and redraft my will to appoint someone to look after my law practice,” says Coates, who notes he currently has business-interruption and disability insurance.

“The idea of having a will for your law practice is really important, but probably 99 per cent of the people in this room don’t have one. I think most lawyers just don’t like to think that we might not be here one day, but you owe it to yourself and your employees to think about it.”

Several of the speakers at the event said they, too, were once uncomfortable with the idea that they may no longer be able to continue working or support their practices.

But Stein said while she understands that fear, she knows disasters don’t wait until lawyers are comfortable or prepared.

“I never expected it to happen to me, but it did,” an emotional Stein said to the audience. “I just hope you’ll learn from my mistakes.”

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