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In Memoriam

Planning Key to Handling the Death of a High-Profile Attorney

Making sure you’re prepared on all fronts for the death of a law firm founder or influential firm attorney is something that no one looks forward to, but failing to take a few necessary steps beforehand is a recipe for potential confusion and consternation among the attorneys at your firm, the firm’s clients, and, importantly, the lawyer’s family.

Although the notion of strategizing for someone’s eventual death may seem macabre, those who do so are much more likely to emerge from a terrible situation in such a way that shows their compassion and dedication to the memory of their lost colleague.

Not unlike succession planning, developing a to-do list will save valuable time and help to preserve existing relationships both inside and outside your firm.

First Steps

One of the first and most important steps is to determine who will want to know more about the lawyer’s passing and what your firm plans to do in response. Obviously, other firm attorneys should be at the top of the list since many of them likely will be relaying the news to clients and referral sources. As part of this effort, consider preparing talking points that can assist firm attorneys when they break the news. As you might expect, this type of conversation typically is best handled by phone or in person rather than an email.

Another important consideration is whether the attorney’s death is likely to be the subject of media coverage. If the lawyer was involved in high-profile cases or other matters that gained media interest in the past, then there is a good chance that reporters will be looking for a comment within hours of the news going public.

If those calls come and you don’t have the time among everything else you’re doing, then a prepared statement is an excellent way to satisfy the media and show your important audiences where the firm stands. Being able to address the situation quickly, compassionately and with appropriate authority will be appreciated by everyone.

I previously have helped clients who unfortunately found themselves trying to cope with the sudden death of a prominent partner while at the same time being asked to respond to the lawyer’s family, reporters, other firm attorneys and clients. The resulting stress is nearly unimaginable for those who have not gone through it themselves, and it can be largely prevented by laying the groundwork before that day arrives.

Respecting the Memory

In addition to reassuring everyone that the firm will move forward, you also may want to consider an additional homage to the lawyer. Taking an extra step beyond relaying the news will confirm for your important audiences the respect and admiration shared by everyone at the firm.

These types of “In Memory” communications can be handled in a variety of ways. Here are few examples:

  • Dedicating a page on your firm website describing the attorney’s career and importance to the firm.
  • Placing an advertisement in the state or local bar journal, legal newspaper or other publication that will be seen by those who know your firm and the lawyer.
  • Establishing and announcing a scholarship in the attorney’s name at a school they attended.

Again, timing is everything. A web page, advertisement or scholarship that shows up six months after an attorney has passed will look like an afterthought. Doing the same thing quickly will be viewed as thoughtful proof of the firm’s respect and admiration for the attorney and evidence that the firm will continue its good work.

Final Details

There are many additional, somewhat mundane issues that will need to be resolved in the weeks and months that follow. Addressing them on the front end will help smooth the transition and prevent wasted time and money that come with trying to play catch up:

  • Firm Name – Under Rule 7.01 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, a deceased attorney’s name can remain in the firm name. However, if the firm decides to remove the lawyer’s name from the firm moniker, there will be many places where the change must be made, including the firm website, marketing materials, business cards, etc.
  • Email – Who will monitor the attorney’s email for important incoming messages, and how long will their address be active?
  • Website Bio – A decision will be needed on whether to maintain the attorney’s bio on the firm website with information that they have passed away or whether to remove their bio altogether. The most important consideration is to make sure that the attorney’s continued online presence in no way indicates that they are still practicing law.
  • Letterhead – If the attorney’s name appears on firm letterhead and you want them to remain there, then you should probably order a new batch that clearly shows they are no longer practicing law to prevent any confusion.
  • Online Directories – Most lawyers have online bios on several online directories, from Martindale-Hubbell to Super Lawyers to Avvo. Having a plan in place for how you will contact these outlets to get the attorney’s information removed or updated to reflect their death will save valuable time and effort.

These are just a few of the things that can be predicted when a notable attorney reaches the end of their life. There are always unexpected issues that you will have to confront, which is another reason why it is crucial to be one step ahead.

Bruce Vincent is a writer and editor who has been assisting lawyers and law firms in high-profile trials for more than 20 years. When he isn’t preparing for the next big case, you can find him writing informative blogs and websites, building compelling advertising messages, handling crisis situations, or sneaking out early to play a round of golf.

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