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This is how to handle the death of an employee or lawyer.

Obituaries are difficult.

I think the true quality of a law or accounting firm can be judged by how it responds to the death of its people.

A few years ago, there was a lot of media attention regarding the tragic death of a prominent Chicago lawyer in an international firm, the chair of an important practice group; suicide was a possibility. A couple weeks after his passing, I looked him up on the law firm’s website, and learned that his biography had been removed. There was no mention of him anywhere on the website.

He’d disappeared.  The only lingering traces were in a few tiny mentions in the News section where he’d been quoted in press releases.

He had become an Orwellian “Unperson.” He’d been erased.

Shame on them.  He deserved better.

Below is an update of a post where we discussed the tragic 2008 death of one of the leaders of the Louisville, KY legal community, and Fishman Marketing’s favorite client ever, Marc Yussman.

Marc was charming, fun, dynamic, generous — a brilliant Goldberg Simpson lawyer, a savvy businessman, and most importantly, an absolutely terrific guy. He’d pick me up at the airport at 9:00 am in his Porsche with a couple short, fat cigars that we’d smoke while racing to the firm, laughing all the way.

Marc died suddenly at just 50 years old, sending the firm reeling. We needed to respond quickly and appropriately.

For starters, here’s the obituary we posted to the website and ran in the local papers.

Marc Yussman obituary ad Goldberg Simpson

 

We tried to capture his personality and spirit; we wanted to tell the story of the man, not the technician.

Here’s what we recommend to our clients when one of their people dies:

Run a prominent obituary announcement in the local legal paper once or twice in weekly or monthly local and industry publications, and five times in the dailies.  It should include a warm, smiling, informal photograph (not the firm’s stiff headshot).  The text should help us see their human side, not just the technical details of their practice. It should look professionally designed.

Other ideas include:

  • Promptly hold an internal meeting, to inform everyone, provide any necessary details about the funeral or services, and discuss the future.
    • Consider offering in-house grief counseling.
  • Determine how ongoing client work will be handled.
  • Inform their clients personally. Be prepared for the call; understand the nature and extent of their relationship.
    • Consider inviting them to internal memorials.
  • Post a sensitive personal obituary on the firm’s home page that focuses on the person, not the lawyer.

 

Obituary Home Page AGG

 

  • Consider sending out an electronic or print announcement mailing to the firm’s database.
  • Put a nicely framed photo of her on a wall (but NOT in the kitchen).
  • Replace their website biography with their personal story (don’t simply edit it to use past-tense verbs…)
  • Work with the deceased’s family to place an obituary with a smiling photo in the professional-announcement section of a local legal paper.
    • Also submit to their college, law school, and hometown papers.
  • Name a conference room after her.

 

Obituary Freeborn Shabat NAME CONFERENCE ROOM IMG_4213

 

  • Set up a trust for a local charity that supports his/her interests and, if possible, the firm’s brand and core values. 
  • Host a memorial gathering at the firm for friends, clients, and colleagues.
    • Encourage people to bring photos and memorabilia.
    • Tell their personal stories.
      • Videotape the speeches and stories for the family.
    • Consider hosting another gathering on the one-year anniversary.
  • For founders and name partners, consider temporarily redesigning the firm’s logo. 
    • Description here, see logo below.

Pessin-Katz-Obituary-Ribbon-Logo-

  • Create an internal award in their name honoring an attribute they valued (e.g. client service, technical proficiency, volunteering).

IMG_4212

 

  • Create a permanent In Memoriam page on your website dedicated to the founders and leaders who helped build the firm.
    • See.g. Moffatt Thomas’s “Tributes to our Former Leaders” page here.

This sad occurrence can be a culture-building opportunity.

It’s a time to show your personnel that they matter, that you’re a family.  Of course, the above ideas apply equally following the loss of a valued member of your professional staff as well.

You only have one chance to do this right. Your personnel, clients, legal community, and the family will notice and remember how you handled this.  If the death is unexpected, it can be hard to think through these issues with a clear head. In that case, get outside help — these things matter.

For additional detail regarding the HR and other issues, read SHRM’s valuable “Death of an Employee: Checklist.”

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  • Lorraine Sullivan says:

    Thanks for your article and excellent tips on such a sensitive topic. When faced with a similar situation — one of our partners died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 51 — I bought three leather bound scrapbooks. We had a lot of news clippings we’d collected over the years about this partner. I made color copies of all of them, arranged them in chronological order and added some notes and headings, and gave them to the partner’s wife – a binder each for her, her son who would soon be heading off to college, and her young daughter. I thought it would be a special memento to help the children understand their father’s professional achievements.

    The next time we did a charity walk for the American Heart Association, we also did it in memory of the partner.