by Shanda Tinney
On August 15th my entire life changed.
My husband and I had just sold our home and were moving. Closing day was scheduled for August 15th. We had been packing and sorting all month and started moving the week before.
My husband became very ill. He had been tired the whole week and not himself, but I put it down to moving. No one likes to sort and pack and haul things, especially in the summer. But the day before closing, he was violently sick. He finally agreed to go to the hospital at 5 am on August 15th—closing day.
Our family came and finished up the move for us while we were at the hospital. Due to a series of mishaps, the closing attorney was not ready with the documents, and so the real estate agent came to the hospital for us to sign continuances. It was a long nightmare of a day.
My husband was admitted to the hospital, and a few days later was transferred to Boston by ambulance because he was so ill and had so many complications. In the meantime, I camped out in one room of our new house (after attending closing alone on August 16th with my power of attorney and in sweatpants I had worn to the hospital, because my clothes were packed in a box that I could not find), found people who daily came to take care of our dogs, and spent 12 + hours a day at the hospital. The contractors had already begun a renovation on the new house, and of course that had hit some delays too, so the contractors were at the new house every day and calling constantly to ask me what kind of hardware we wanted for the little metal strips on the floor and did we want 4 recessed lights or 6. When my husband was transferred to Boston everything became worse, because then I also had to fight Boston traffic in a car which was no longer working well. Our family spent days at our house unpacking and sorting so that I could find my clothes and maybe some dishes and the coffee pot. My mother flew in from out of state to stay with me while my husband was at the hospital, and she dealt with the contractors for me as much as she could, unpacked boxes, and took care of the dogs. I called my husband’s place of employment and started arranging for him to use his sick and vacation time, and to start the process of applying for long-term disability. We did not have a stove so friends brought my mother and me meals we could heat in the microwave or treated us to Iunch. And every little thing that could go wrong did. Verizon went on strike and we had no internet, phone or cable. The car broke down. One of the dogs had to go to the emergency vet late one night. My husband’s ambulance was in an accident with him in it on the way to Boston. The basement flooded. Lowe’s delivered the wrong type of dryer and it took two weeks to get the right one, and then they forgot the venting system. The oil tank ran dry and we had no hot water. I stopped sleeping all together.
None of us anticipated how long it would last. My husband was discharged from the Boston hospital after a week or so, but over the next two months he was readmitted over and over, and until the last hospitalization, it was always in Boston.
Before all of this, my solo practice had finally hit its stride. I had lots of active cases (mostly family law, but other types as well), and I had not had a slow month in almost a year. I had new client calls several times a week. I also worked with some other attorneys as an independent contractor and that supplemented my income.
But there was no longer any time to work. I had to take my own personal Family and Medical Leave without pay. I did not have a secretary or paralegal, so I returned calls using my cell phone in the hospital lobby and answered emails using my laptop while my husband slept.
Doctors were constantly coming in and out of the hospital room, and they had to keep running tests to try to figure out what was wrong. I had to focus on the doctors and tests and medications, because my husband was too ill to handle it himself. There were so many teams of doctors that I became the coordinator and would update each team on what another team had said or wanted to try. I was also the person who made sure that medically my husband did not fall through the cracks. I could not focus on my practice.
I did the only thing I could: I asked friends who were also attorneys, who had time, to handle my cases for me. One person in particular managed almost everything. She drafted documents and filed things and appeared in court for me. She made calls and responded to emails. She even made dinner and brought it to my house for my mother and me, because the new stove had not yet arrived. Other attorney-friends also helped me cover things. I referred out the new client calls, and stopped taking new cases. More than one potential client did not even get a return call, because I was at maximum capacity for what I could handle on any given day. I also had to eliminate some cases entirely from my case load, because they were on matters that my attorney-friends were unable to handle. I referred those cases out and refunded fees, even fees I had already earned, because from the clients’ point of view, they had not received anything of value for their payment, as their cases were still in the early stages. The earned fees came straight out of pocket. I had to withdraw from a court-fund case with almost no notice. In short, I started losing money fast, and my practice lost clients.
I did my best, emailing and calling clients to explain the situation without getting into too much detail. I talked to clerks and explained. My clients and the clerks were very understanding. And I relied on the huge support network I am lucky enough to have. I have very good friends who are attorneys and who offered, without hesitation, to handle my practice for me. I had two teams—my home team and my work team—and they made it possible for me to be with my husband and manage the crisis with him while they handled just about everything else for me. When I did make it to the office, the other people in my building (not all of them attorneys) always stopped to ask me how was I doing, listened to my tales of woe, and brought me coffee. I received supportive emails and text messages daily from friends and family. One attorney friend talked me through the process of applying for long-term disability versus SSDI. Another helped me with some deed drafting issues for our new house.
Two months later, my husband is home from the hospital. It will be a long time before things are back to normal, and he is healing while I adjust to being a caretaker. I went back to work part-time this week (by part-time, I mean I spent about 10 hours in my office). I have a lot to catch up on, and I still have friends helping me. I do not have as many active cases as I did, and I am not earning what I was earning. My desk is a bit of a disaster and my office plant might not make it. But my husband survived, thanks to the grace of God, my house is still standing, thanks to our wonderful family, and my practice survived, thanks to great friends who handled my practice for me at a moment’s notice. I will be going to court for the first time in two months next week. I even took on a new client. Things are definitely getting better.
But a solo just cannot do it alone. A solo attorney absolutely must have a strong support network of family and friends, and other attorneys, who can help them in times of personal crisis. Without my family, I would be living in a shack with a flooded basement right now. Without my attorney friends, I would have no job left at all, and I might be facing malpractice claims. Without faith, I would have lost my mind, making all of the above null and void anyway.
It is a fact of having a solo practice—solos need others, period. I am so grateful for the friends and family who took care of my life for me while I took care of my husband. I owe all of them a vacation to Hawaii but I cannot afford it. The best I can do is to thank them from the bottom of my heart, and to be there for them should they ever need me.