If you’re a sole-practitioner or sole director of an incorporated law firm then you’ll already have your attorney in place – but when was the last time you checked in with them?
Throughout the renewals period this year we’d like to encourage you to contact your attorney to update them on any changes that they need to know if they needed to step in to run your business. If you don’t have an attorney then now is the time to put one in place – it is a requirement under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006.
It’s also a good idea to check in with the person who is listed as your alternate. The alternate is the person who would step in if your attorney couldn’t do it.
Why is an attorney and an alternate required?
First, as already mentioned, it is a requirement under the Act. Second, it’s inevitable that you will need a break at some point. That may be for a holiday or for medical reasons, or it may be for disciplinary reasons or in the worst case a death.
If you need to step away from running your business, for any reason, then you need someone who can step in for you to support your practice during your absence, or if it needs to be wound up.
Who can be an attorney or alternate?
Both need to be a barrister and solicitor entitled to practise on own account so that either can step into your shoes at short notice if necessary. This means that if the lawyer is an employee, they cannot be your attorney or alternate.
If you are a trust account supervisor (TAS) your attorney and alternate also need to be TAS-qualified and have practised in that role within the last 10 years.
Truman Wee has been practising on his own account since 2003 and has been a member on the Law Society’s Practice Approval Committee for several years.
“Ensuring you have the right person acting as your attorney is really important – it’s a big decision about who to ask, and likewise you need to give serious consideration to the implications of agreeing to be an attorney.
“One of the most important aspects of the relationship you will have is to be able to trust the person. You will be entrusting your life’s work to them, and any employees you have.
“It’s always good to look for someone who is in the same type of practice area as you so they can pick up the work easily – although us sole-practitioners tend to cover a bit of everything.
“Finding someone local so you can meet regularly usually works best.”
What does your attorney need to know?
It’s a good idea to keep your Attorney updated on a number of things:
- how many staff you employ
- if you take up any new practice areas
- where to find passwords to your files and keys to the office
- if you have any complaints against you
- if you change your office software
- which bank you use and the relevant accounts
What should you know about your attorney?
“There are some important things that you should regularly check. One of the most important is knowing if your attorney will be unavailable for a period of time,” says Truman.
It’s good to keep updated on the following:
- any complaints they have against them and potential disciplinary action
- if their health may impede them running your business
- if they are planning to move away from the local area or retire
- if they are planning to stop working in an area of practice, particularly if you are a trust account supervisor
What are the challenges to finding an attorney?
Truman understands the challenges facing sole-practitioners like himself in finding an attorney.
“It can be difficult to know who to reach out to, especially when you’re just starting out as a sole-practitioner.
“I’ve also found that local networks aren’t as strong as they used to be. I’d recommend attending events put on by your local Law Society branch or other organisations to meet fellow lawyers.
“It can also be hard in smaller towns as the only other practitioner is effectively your competitor. With new technology making it easier to connect this could open up opportunities for Attorneys to be further afield but I still think having a local attorney is best. Remember, they may need to step in at very short notice.”
What are the opportunities of the attorney relationship?
Being a sole-practitioner can be isolating. The need to have an attorney is a link to a fellow practitioner who you know and trust so can help ease that sense of being alone.
“Knowing my practice will be good hands is a relief to me,” says Truman.
“I’ve spent many years building up my clients and I don’t want them left without legal help if something was to happen to me. The same with my employee. She’s worked with me for years so it’s only right that she is supported.
“We’ve also seen through Covid that the most unexpected things can happen, so whilst the law requires us to be prepared, 2020 has shown us from a more human perspective why we should be prepared.”
How do I find out more?
There is more information about the requirements of being an attorney or alternate and appointing an attorney or alternate in the Professional Practice section under entering sole practice as a barrister and solicitor.