Preparing for the Inevitable: An "Estate Plan" for Your Practice

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Retirement and death are inevitable, so all lawyers should be prepared in terms of their practice and for the benefit of their clients.

All lawyers should also follow these steps:

  1. Prepare a client list containing all current contact information and status of matters/cases being handled. This listing should be kept current.

  2. Create a memo for each file so that any lawyer who assumes the file will know the strategy developed, the outcome planned, and the tactics anticipated.

  3. Create a buddy system by arranging with a colleague to review all of this information and either take on the cases or provide for other representation without using a state bar conservator paid by the estate. A better alternative is grooming a successor brought on board as an associate or a lateral partner. Ideally, matters can be transitioned to the new lawyer over several years, through ongoing conversations with key clients about the upcoming transition as the successor forges new ties and gets up to speed on what the client needs and expects. Transitioning a successor from inside the firm eliminates ethical concerns and succession worries.

Another alternative for solos is identifying a purchaser for the practice. Usually even the smallest and most personal practices are salable for the right price and under the right terms. Prospective buyers include law firms that are well run and free of debt, and that may themselves be run by successful lawyers positioned to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by purchasing other practices. It's a win-win situation for both parties, made possible by Model Rule 1.17, which allows for the sale of all or part of a practice. But no matter whether a colleague, successor, or purchaser ultimately takes responsibility, proper planning will give any lawyer peace of mind that ethical snares will not diminish the value of a practice built during decades of hard work.

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