When you read the title of this blog post, we’re guessing you thought we were going to give you a primer on how to shop for your firm’s “secret Santa” event or decorate the office in a way that is inclusive of all the firm’s various employees.
That’s the fun stuff about the holidays, and we trust that you’ll be able to figure those issues out for yourselves.
Instead, what we’re talking about today is how to prepare for the less holly jolly side of the holidays within the practice of law.
Surely you’ve experienced these conditions. Cold and flu season hits. Meanwhile, half of the attorneys and paralegals in the office are out on scheduled vacations. Inevitably, this is when the opposing counsel on the firm’s biggest case files an emergency motion. And typically, there’s a rag-tag team of professionals – likely the firm’s newest employees – left holding a huge bag of responsibilities.
Having been there myself a time or two, I can assure you that being in this position is no fun.
That said, we all know this potential tsunami of work is headed our way. So, let’s talk about the things we can do now to make our holiday work life as pleasant as humanly possible.
Get familiar with Notices of Unavailability
If you have a litigation practice and at least one opposing attorney with a mean streak, you need to get familiar with the “Notice of Unavailability.”
Ultimately, this document is exactly what it purports to be. It is a formal notice to the court and all other parties that one of the attorneys on a particular case (usually the lead attorney) will be out of the office for a defined period of time.
These notices are often forgotten and with potentially serious consequences. If a sinister opposing lawyer gets a whiff that your lead attorney is unreachable, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will file an Ex Parte motion to compel something.
Of course, their aim will be to sneak in an important motion during a time when it has to be handled by a junior lawyer or an attorney who is not familiar with the case.
Note that different courts have different local rules and different forms that are required to invoke the unavailability procedure. Be sure, as always, to follow your particular court’s demands in this regard.
Also, talk with your team about the timing of this notice.
Some attorneys like to file them the moment they book their vacation (often months before they actually leave) and others like to file them as they head out the door for the holidays.
Either way, if you’re one of the people stuck in the office while others are out, you’ll be glad your opponents have this roadblock to their holiday motion plans.
Know who to call, when to call them, and how to call them
If there’s one law that is certain to come into play in a near-empty law office over the holidays, it’s Murphy’s Law.
Indeed, even if you’ve carefully filed your Notices of Unavailability, finished any projects that need approval before your bosses hit the road, and otherwise wrapped up your end-of-the-year projects, something is nearly sure to go wrong during this time.
It doesn’t even have to be a legal dispute. It could be a fire in the breakroom, an earthquake, or a workplace accident.
Regardless, you’re probably going to need to reach one of your bosses at some point.
That’s why you’d be wise to have a solid reporting structure in place.
Not all emergencies require the managing partner. But if not her, then who? And how can they be reached? And will you get in trouble for calling them?
You need answers to all of these questions well before the holidays hit.
Of course, one good way to avoid all of this strife is to assign managing attorneys with burner phones (i.e., prepaid cell phones) that are only to be used in previously-defined emergencies. That way, they can mostly avoid being tethered to a phone over the holidays, yet you can still confidently reach them if something happens.
Remember the lessons of the pandemic
We are still close enough to the pandemic that you likely don’t need heavy reminders of how to prevent the cold and flu from destroying your office.
Here are the basics:
- Make sure people know not to come to work sick. Don’t pressure anyone to come in when they’re feeling unwell.
- Allow for remote work if colds or the flu start infiltrating employees (or if they need to take care of a sick child).
- Have hand sanitizing stations located all around the office.
- Provide masks for those who want to wear them.
Also, consider hosting an in-firm flu vaccine clinic for those who want to get the shot. After all, you’re already going to be running on a barebones staff during the holidays. If the flu gets a hold of your office, you could find yourself in true crisis mode.
What to do if you actually have down time during the holidays
On a brighter note, there’s always a chance that the office will remain super quiet during the holidays.
So, what do you do if you find yourself without much billable work to do while everyone else is out?
Well, it’s never a bad idea to invoke the law firm equivalent of “if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.”
Take this time to tidy up your office or work station.
Empty your overflowing recycling bins. Organize the files stored on your computer hard-drive. Organize the thousands of emails in your inbox into concise client/matter files. Clean the cache off of your computer.
Of course, you can also spend time planning for your success in 2023.
Make a business development plan. Set next year’s billable hour goals. Reserve spots in upcoming MCLE conferences that you’d like to attend. You know you won’t have time for those things when the new year hits, so you might as well dive in while you can.
Whatever the holidays look like for you and your firm, we wish you the very best!