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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater warms up before a preseason game against the San Diego Chargers on Aug. 28 in Minneapolis. His season-ending injury during practice raises a question for solo attorneys: What would happen to your clients if you were suddenly incapacitated? (AP photo: Andy Clayton-King)

Solo Practice: One false step: Consequences in law and life

Around this time every year, the subject of my column is fantasy football. It’s something I’m engaged with in late August and early September every year, and statistically, a fair number of you are too. And it mostly relates to solo or small firm practice. I can write about how Matthew Berry’s advice about how to give yourself the greatest chance to succeed (he writes the same column every year, too) is applicable to solo practice. I can write about how the hours you spend in preparation for the draft lead to a successful draft in a way that is difficult for clients to see but critical to your success. I write these columns every year, and their relation to small-firm practice is — to use the legal term — at least colorable.

I was writing that column this month when something happened that changed my mind. I’m not going to write about how fantasy football principles relate to small-firm practice, although I might do that next time. I’m still going to write about football, though. Because as I was preparing my column, something happened that is devastating for Minnesota football. Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings’ rising star quarterback and one of the keys to the season, went down with what looks to be a season-ending injury.

It was what was described as a “non-contact injury” — one of those times when a player just steps wrong and destroys his season. It was a scary moment on the field, as the players stopped to gather in prayer around him as an ambulance came to cart him off. Just one of those fluky things that happen in life, and the Vikings’ season may essentially be over before it begins.

It might not be as bad as all that. At the time of writing, the extent of the injury has not been confirmed, although it pretty clearly seems like his season is done. If not, that it outstanding. But if the football gods are against us (see 2015 playoffs), he is done for the year. And what is our backup plan? Shaun Hill: journeyman backup who hasn’t started a game in years? Joel Stave: undrafted free agent out of – shudder – Wisconsin? Some other team’s castoff quarterback?

Put another way, what would happen to your clients if you were suddenly incapacitated?

On “The West Wing,” Press Secretary C.J. Cregg kept an “If I get hit by a bus” file (something that has occurred to me several times when, walking in downtown Minneapolis, I narrowly missed getting hit by a bus. Pro tip: One-way streets aren’t always really one way). The idea behind the file was that if she was suddenly incapacitated — or promoted — someone would be able to take the handoff of her duties and current projects.

For people who work at a moderate or large-sized firm, this isn’t as much of an issue. Some turnover is inevitable, and even in the event of an unexpected departure, there are plenty of people to pick up the slack of the departing lawyer. For small-firm and especially solo practitioners, however, the question is more pointed. If you are incapacitated, what will happen to your clients?

I’m not going to lie. I don’t keep a file like this. I’m not sure of anyone who does. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, my clients would be more or less on their own. That’s obviously not ideal.

What should I be doing? Being more organized. It might be too much to expect a seamless handoff. But I’m not the only one who should be able to access my email and docketing software if I’m suddenly incapacitated. Events on my calendar should not come and go with no one noticing. The password to my client files should not die with me.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to keep such a file, with passwords to give the necessary access to your calendar and files, a few notes about how to navigate your docketing software and file organization, or even your shorthand. There would be someone — another solo, possibly — who knows where and how to access the file.

The purpose would be beyond just making sure your clients and the court could be notified in the case of your death. “Incapacity” could cover quite a range of things. Certainly we’ve all known people who died unexpectedly, due to accident, suicide, murder, or even simply an untimely but natural death. But it doesn’t have to be anything so dramatic. A long-term hospitalization could incapacitate you. Even nicer events like a vacation can be a form of incapacity if an unexpected issue arises while you’re gone.

Hopefully nothing like that happens, obviously (except for the vacation, which would be nice). But that’s the point that started me on this whole train of thought. I was feeling good about the Vikings this year. I was happy about where the team was headed. And then one wrong step, and the quarterback is out for the season. Someone has to step up and fill his role, or the season will be over with one unexpected event.

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