Good Captains Don't Jump Ship

Published on: 
05/01/2014
You might or might not know the name, but you almost certainly know the story. The name is Lee Jun-seok, and the story is that he was the captain who saved himself and let the passengers on his Korean ship go down with the vessel in April of this year.

In January of 2012, an Italian captain, Francesco Schettino, did the same reprehensible deed, causing 32 deaths.

Both captains are publicly reviled. It is sometimes law but always morality that dictates that a captain should go down with his ship — or, at least, be the last to leave it.

Such standards apply not just in the maritime context but also in the legal context. As the owner of a firm, it is your obligation to take care of your "ship" before you take care of yourself. In other words, you have an obligation to take care of your employees, your staff and your business before you consider anything more than the minimum expense necessary to maintain a standard of living.

There is perhaps no profession where entitlement is less justified than in the law. If you are a partner in an existing firm, you are personally responsible for the debts and liabilities of the firm. Spending sleepless nights wondering how to improve the efficiency and growth and profitability of the law firm is a given.

We're talking about the essential concept of ownership, which is the opposite of entitlement. An ownership mentality supports an emotional commitment to the success of the firm in which the lawyer as owner is the last person to receive financial benefit from the firm—after staff, associates, vendors, and suppliers.

Furthermore, when a lawyer either retires or dies, there should be no concerns about that lawyer abandoning ship. Regardless of the way in which a lawyer eventually leaves a practice, he should have made sure beforehand that the lifeboats for his clients and his heirs were ready and waiting.

Unlike other business owners, lawyers face significant ethical consequences for failing to plan for a practice's future. Failure to plan for how clients will be taken care of as a lawyer approaches retirement age shows a disregard for client welfare that can be seen as an ethical violation.

Furthermore, a lawyer should appoint a practice representative to take care of matters in case of the lawyer's unexpected death. The ABA's Commentary 5 on Rule of Professional Conduct 1.3 ("Diligence") states thus: "To prevent neglect of client matters in the event of a sole practitioner's death or disability, the duty of diligence may require that each sole practitioner prepare a plan, in conformity with applicable rules, that designates another competent lawyer to review client files, notify each client of the lawyer's death or disability, and determine whether there is a need for immediate protective action."

Courts have ruled that an estate can be directly liable to pay damages to injured clients left in the lurch by a lawyer's death. The reasoning is that the lawyer should have known that death was possible and taken steps to protect his clients in the event that tragedy struck.

Lawyers who do not plan for what happens to their practices if they suddenly die not only make their grieving families immediately face decisions regarding what to do about the practice but also harm the inheritances of their loved ones by throwing away the value of their practices.

Thus, in both life and death, a captain needs to maintain command of his ship.

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