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Dealing With the Death of a Lawyer

I had another article ready to go but in these unusual times, talking about marketing plans felt a little like ignoring the elephant in the room. So today I’ll post what I’ve been dreading but what is inevitable -and potentially very valid these days. It is also an important and necessary skill for anyone assisting with Law Firm Marketing: dealing with the death of a lawyer.

Throughout my career, I’ve had to deal with the death of a Partner, and advise clients on how to deal with the death of lawyers in their firm. It’s not surprising, really. Like taxes, death is inevitable, by Covid or any other means. There’s far too much of it around these days, and likely more coming with a second wave this fall and winter. It makes sense to be prepared.

The trick to dealing with something terrible is to have a process in place so you can focus on the steps. I am focussing on communication requirements in this blog post. You’ll want to check in with your relevant Law Society to learn firm responsibilities in other regards. The tasks listed below are the responsibility of firm leadership, with support from the Marketing function and other Management support staff as needed and appropriate.

Step One: Speak with the family.

  • Confirm the facts. The firm spokesperson (usually the Managing Partner) or the lawyer closest to the family should speak with a member of the family to confirm death, learn what happened, and determine what the family is and is not willing to share.
  • Further, let the family know that the firm would like to take care of business and bar-associated notifications, but will do so with their review of all information going out to the public in advance.
  • Ask to be kept informed of funeral or memorial service information.

Step Two: Inform the firm.

  • Start with the Partnership. Ensure your communication is factually correct, informative, compassionate, and contains either the details of the funeral/memorial or advises that this information will be forthcoming once known. You want to strike a balance between saying only what’s necessary, and cutting down on the potential for call-backs asking for clarifying information.
  • Next, the Managing Partner should make a personal call to whichever Associates and staff members were closest to the deceased lawyer. It’s helpful to know before that call what assistance programs might be available through the firm for grief counselling.
  • Next, a message should be sent to the entire firm. End the message with a reminder that the MP is handling all communication with the family and outside enquiries.
  • Please note that information spreads like wildfire and you don’t want members of the firm learning about firm information from the street. The difference between the above notifications is counted in minutes and perhaps hours, not days. This is why it is so critical that the Marketing Professional be ready to assist by identifying people to call and drafting scripts while other phone calls are being made.

Step Three: Inform the Clients

  • Ask Accounting and the deceased lawyer’s assistant to work together immediately to create a list of all current files, then all clients of that lawyer generally.
  • Work within the firm to quickly determine who will take over which files. The assistant can provide enormous assistance in helping to get that lawyer up to speed on the matter.
  • Clients with current, active matters should be contacted immediately and personally by the MP and the lawyer who will take over the matter. By the end of the call, the client may be shocked but hopefully feel they are nevertheless in good hands in the immediate future.
  • Next, inform the larger body of clients that might not have anything active at the moment. This should also be accompanied by a suggested replacement within the firm. That replacement should contact the client within a two-week period to introduce themselves (even better if they are already part of that client’s team and the client knows them).

Step Four: Inform the Outside World

  • Place a notice on your website – it may be a discrete announcement on the front page with a link to a dedicated page with photo and biographical information. Ensure the family has approved this page.
  • You’ll have to notify the Law Society. You may have to advise your insurer, bank, and adjust documents such as the Partners’ agreement accordingly.
  • Consider sending a press release to your local bar association, and any pertinent legal magazines.

Step Five:

  • The firm will need to determine an attendance policy for the funeral/memorial. Some smaller firms shut down and allow everyone to attend. Some make recommendations for who would most appropriately attend.
  • You may wish to create a temporary tribute area in your reception area.
  • Eventually, you may wish to create a longer-term tribute in the form of naming a boardroom after the deceased, or a scholarship, bursary, school trophy, etc. Again, this should be done in concert with the family.

If the Partner was a name-Partner, the firm might consider in due course whether a name-change is desired or required (depending on your local Law Society rules). Following from this will be the usual steps required in a corporate image transfer: logo, website, letterhead, etc.

If the lawyer was retried, the only difference to the list above is with regard to notifying clients. Otherwise all steps are pretty much the same.

This isn’t an exhaustive list…it’s more focussed on communication than business needs. But communication is the most important immediate action required in these circumstances, and the area in which most firms fail. Create a plan, assemble the team, do the steps.

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