From employee handbooks to partnership agreements, there are plenty of resources to help navigate the straightforward “do’s” and “don’ts” of law firm management.
However, there are sometimes unexpected instances that aren’t explicitly covered – like how best to handle the death of a partner. Who should you contact first? What’s the most suitable way to inform your staff? Do you post on the website?
While a partner’s passing may be unexpected, you do not have to be unprepared. Handling sensitive issues is easier with a plan; if you develop a general protocol for these situations, the process will be smoother for your firm and the family. You can balance business needs with empathy and emotional intelligence.
We talked to Courtney Fadler, founder of Courtney Fadler Etiquette. Fadler, a graduate of the Emily Post Institute, stressed the importance of offering condolences to all parties and keeping sentiments focused on the partner’s life and accomplishments. Fadler teaches the three etiquette principles of consideration, respect and honesty.
Here’s how to apply those principles to the passing of a partner:
- Work with the family. Fadler says the first point of contact should always be the family of the deceased. The family may wish for privacy, and it is important to know that before communicating a partner’s death to your staff. The family may have specific wishes on where flowers, notes and charitable donations may be sent, and they may not wish to have meals delivered to their home. Remember: They are grieving. Be mindful of putting too much pressure on the family. It is often more helpful to say “We are thinking of doing such-and-such, is that OK?” versus “How can we help?” Don’t put it on them to develop your plan. Be tactful when asking permission to inform staff, clients and the public of a partner’s passing.
- Tell your staff as soon as appropriate. Once you have received approval from the family, communicate the partner’s death to other partners and leadership first to discuss the best course of action for your firm. Be efficient in your execution of strategy. Do not let your staff find out in the newspaper or through gossip channels. Give them some time and space to mourn.
- Contact clients, too. Make a practical effort to call the decedent’s clients, when possible instead of email. Let them know the new contact at the firm and offer some reassurance.
- Post the news on your website and social channels. Once staff and clients know – and with the blessing of the family – make a tasteful announcement on social media. Consider adding a remembrance page on your website’s news section. Don’t immediately erase the deceased; add an In Memoriam header to the partner’s online biography. Fadler says it’s best to have the partner’s email automatically forwarded to someone who can personally respond to each email, whether by phone, email or in person. Make sure your receptionist knows how to direct calls, too.
- Remember your colleague. Consider memorializing the individual with a dedicated conference room or internal award. (Again, be sure to get the blessing of the family.) We know one firm that named its annual office putt-putt event after a deceased partner who used to organize it; the firm invites his widow and toasts his memory each year. It is a genuine, heartfelt commemoration.
“In these delicate and sometimes unexpected situations, it’s important to make every decision based on consideration for the family and those closest to the deceased,” Fadler said. “If so, you are probably making great etiquette decisions that will help honor the deceased and be comfortable for all involved.”