Retirement usually means not only leaving your job, but everything associated with that job. However, when a lawyer retires, this isn’t necessarily the case. Whether they are no longer practicing law, or starting an entirely new career, lawyers may find themselves haunted by liability claims arising from their past work.
For this reason, it’s important for departing lawyers to confirm that liability coverage will remain intact for past work. To accomplish this goal, you should review the partnership agreement, the firm’s professional liability insurance, and any recent claims. Keep in mind that partnership agreements and insurance coverage vary from firm to firm. When you review the agreement, you may find an absence of provisions for the firm’s ongoing indemnity or insurance obligations towards former members.
When reviewing the firm’s professional liability policy you’ll probably find that is written on a “claims made” basis. This means that coverage is provided for any claims made during the policy term, even if the events that precipitated the claim happened before the policy’s effective date. Even if your firm has a claims made policy, it can still have coverage gaps that significantly affect you once you decide to leave. For example, the insurer may have included provisions that limit or exclude coverage of the firm’s activities in certain practice areas. Or with claims made policies, if an exclusion is added in the future, it is applicable to all past and future work in that practice area.
Your policy review should also include an examination of its coverage limits. Since these limits cover all claims made and reported within the policy term, there may not be funds available to cover a retiring lawyer if the firm has already submitted a substantial number of claims or even just one large one.
The next step in your evaluation is a determination of how the policy defines “insured.” In some attorney-client relationships, a lawyer may be considered an employee or independent contractor. Under some policies, coverage for employees and independent contractors is either limited or non-existent.
You should also review the conditions regarding the firm’s responsibilities for policy renewal and reporting claims. Don’t assume that the firm will continue to operate as a going concern after you are gone, or that it will continue to renew its liability policy. In fact, in the case of smaller firms, dissolution is often the outcome after a key partner retires.
If the practice is dissolved, it is important that the firm and its former partners maintain insurance coverage. And since time is a crucial factor in a dissolution scenario when it comes to coverage, it is important that you meet as soon as possible with your insurance representative to discuss your coverage status and appropriate options.