10.4 Developing a Plan - Where to Start?
Imagine the following: You are a sole practitioner and do not employ staff. There is a family emergency and you are required to leave immediately. Your practice is quiet at that time of year and you do not anticipate that any matters will arise while you are gone. However, while you are away a client is trying to reach you regarding an urgent matter that has arisen. After being unable to reach you, they contact the Law Society. The Law Society follows up and are unable to locate you or to find anyone who can explain where you are or when you will be back.
Or perhaps more realistically in the smart phone age, you are in a serious accident and are admitted to hospital in a coma or undergoing extensive surgery. Your family is at the hospital waiting for word from the doctors about how you are doing. It doesn’t occur to them to check on your office and whether you have any pending matters or emergencies.
In these types of situations, the Law Society may have to apply to the court for an order appointing a custodian to take possession or control of all or part of your property and to manage your practice. This could be both costly (you would have to pay the fees for the custodian) and embarrassing.
This is just one example of the type of emergency event that could impact your practice. There could be an environmental event that makes your office inaccessible. Or you may fall victim to cyber-crime and be locked out of your computer system.
How would you make sure that your clients are not prejudiced?
First, you need to understand how your business operates. The scope of some of the steps you need to take will obviously be different depending on whether you are ill for a week or a fire sweeps through your office destroying all of your on-site files. A plan to deal with one eventuality will not be sufficient to deal with all others.
Keep a copy of your plan off-site in a secure location so it remains intact and accessible. As we learned from the Fort McMurray evacuation, keeping a copy of your plan in another location in your municipality may not be enough. Having your plan accessible from your smartphone may be advisable so that you—and your staff-- can access it quickly from different locations.
In order for you to perform risk assessment and contingency planning, you must analyze:
- the likelihood of the risk and
- the cost/consequences to the firm should the risk manifest itself.
Some risks might be so remote that the only practical way of dealing with them is to purchase insurance against the risk. Other risks might be more common, but their impact on the practice might be negligible, so an assessment should be made as to the amount of effort needed to protect against the risk. Still other risks fall into the "no-brainer" category, such as installing and updating virus protection software on your computers.
Remember that just because you have formulated a plan, risk management does not stop there—it is an ongoing process. You should continually be evaluating:
- what your practice risks are and
- how to minimize both the likelihood of these risks occurring and the consequences if they do occur.
You have a positive obligation to maintain your financial records in a safe and secure location (Rules of the Law Society of Alberta, Rule 119.37(1)(a)) and to keep the most recent two years of financial records at your principal place of business in Alberta (Rule 119.37(1)(b)). It is prudent practice to ensure that your trust ledger accounts, financial records and supporting documents which you are required to keep for ten years are also kept in a safe and secure location.
See “Safeguarding Your Practice” for a review of identification of risks, circumstances and planning for the unexpected.