The Day After a Partner Dies

Avoid a power vacuum after a partner dies.
Avoid a power vacuum after a partner dies.

Of course, every law firm should have some sort of succession plan in place, and a firm’s partnership agreement may well address it. But, as a practical matter, what happens the day after the name partner’s funeral? Who is now in charge of the office? Does that person really have a good grasp of how the firm functions on a day-to-day basis? Does that person know what the dead partner was working on, where the files are, whether payments have been made, the last time the partner even spoke to the client?

Even in cases where death or retirements are expected, transitions might not be easy. Moreover, lawyers who have experienced the sudden death of a colleague tend not to be quite so forthcoming about a bit of disarray that may have been left behind, especially as office members as well as clients are likely going through a mourning process. The reality is: some files may be at the lawyer’s home, notes may not be as up-to-date as ideally they should be, recent timesheets may not have been completed.

What is a law firm to do? Plan ahead, of course, often and well. Ideally, successors would have already been prepared for their roles and would be able to step into their newly authoritative positions seamlessly. But many small-business owners, which small firm lawyers are, like to keep their heads in the sand about the future of their businesses and their own eventual deaths. Someone needs to ask, early and often, what happens if the firm leadership gets hit by a bus tomorrow? Who would know what to do next?

—Lori Tripoli

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