After nearly 20 years in business, advising clients on how to shut down their online presence when they retire is becoming a more frequent conversation. Attorneys these days have multiple digital assets, ranging from websites and email accounts to social media and professional profiles. Retiring attorneys need to put some care and attention towards properly closing these assets down so that problems, like identity theft, don’t crop up and rain on their well-earned retirement.
In this post we address what to do when a firm is closing due to retirement. But retirement isn’t the only reason a law practice closes. Sometimes the attorneys have merged with another firm, sold the practice, split into multiple firms or have taken new jobs. Each scenario requires a unique strategy and we will address those in future posts.
Here is a short list of the public facing digital assets lawyers need to deal with when retiring.
There are two primary concerns when it comes to digitally shutting down a firm and the first one may surprise you.
Let’s dive into the concerns surrounding each of these assets and how to best handle them.
A law firm’s domain name, (aka its .com name) is the core of its online identity. Domain names are the address for the firm’s website and they make up the part of email addresses after the @ symbol.
Domain names are renewed on an annual basis and it is a common, but terribly dangerous practice, for a law firm to let their domain name expire when the practice closes. Letting domains expire saves a nominal annual expense of $20-50, but a freshly expired domain name goes back on the market and opens the attorney up to fraud and identity theft.
Expired domains can be effortlessly re-registered and owned by a bad actor. The new owner can easily reactivate email service on the old domain to read any messages still being sent to any of the firm’s old email addresses. They can also send email from the old addresses to impersonate the attorney. With access to email, password resets can be performed allowing access to any online service where the old email address is still the primary login. This could compromise file sharing services, servers, legal portals, court services, banking, social media and more. Essentially, the online identity of the lawyer and law firm can be spoofed and stolen.
To block potential problems caused by lost domain names a retiring attorney should do the following:
To drive the point home about how important it is to not let domains expire, read this fascinating case study and in-depth account of what an Australian cyber security expert was able to hack from law firms by re-registering expired domains. It’s very eye-opening and took surprisingly little effort.
When a law firm closes due to retirement, the best practice is to replace the law firm’s website with a short, professional announcement regarding the retirement. The announcement should contain notice that the firm is closed and provide contact information for the retired attorneys. For example:
The Smith Firm PC has ceased operations as a law firm. Clients of the firm should have received notification of the closure of the firm as well information about files and any retainer funds.
Anne Smith has retired from the practice of law. If you need to reach Anne regarding legal services provided by The Smith Firm, PC or other matters, she can be contacted at email@example.com.
We recommend that this notice run for six months to a year, after which it can be taken offline completely. This will require continued hosting of the firm’s website account, but the expense should be quite reasonable since it is just a single page announcement.
In retiring the firm’s website, don't overlook that there may be sellable components. For instance, if a firm has built a substantial body of content with their blog, or about certain practice areas, competing law firms may be interested in purchasing this content. It is completely possible to sell, and transfer search engine rankings, from parts or all of a website and this can easily be worth thousands of dollars.
Email is at the cornerstone of law office communication. It serves not just as means of direct communication with clients, attorneys, vendors, peers and friends but also is the primary username for online access to many services like banking, office cloud software, remote server access, mobile applications, social media profiles, file sharing, backup services, online shopping, travel and more.
Most attorneys we work with have a professional email address with their own domain (.com) name and they eventually want to close this down completely. Here are the steps that should be taken.
On the technical side of things, there are several options that can ease the actual shutdown of the work email accounts.
Forwarding - Email to the old account can be automatically forwarded to the new personal account for a period of time. This requires the old email service to remain active so that it can receive and forward on messages. The upside is that to the sender, their message will be automatically sent on to the attorney without any action on their part. The downside is the cost of running the old accounts and periodically checking to ensure the forwarding is working.
Auto-Responder - An out-of-office responder (usually used for vacations) can be used to automatically inform the sender that the firm is no longer in operation and can be used to provide updated contact information. This is a nice option because it lets the sender know that their message has not been received, lets them know about the attorney's retirement and gives options for making contact. This does require that the old email account hosting stay operational however, so there is an expense to do an auto-responder.
Our recommendation for retiring attorneys is to do both forwarding and an auto-responder at the same time for several months, just in case. Then stop the forwarding. And finally, shut down the email account all together. But remember, do not let the domain name expire.
For help with email forwarding, setup and related issues, we recommend reaching out to our friends at WingMan Legal Tech.
In addition to a law firm’s website, there are dozens of third party websites that publish business contact information and reviews. The most popular are sites like Google My Business, Yelp, Yellow Pages, and Facebook. These listings will all show up prominently in search results when looking for the retiring attorney by name.
Most of the time, attorneys who are completely closing down their practice will just let these listings languish. Over a period of months (perhaps years) the third party websites will learn through public databases and public feedback that the business has closed.
To avoid public confusion, it is possible to log into each of the major listings to manually indicate that the business is closed. This will immediately remove the business contact information from search results or show the business as closed. This is our recommendation, but it can be a bit annoying and time consuming.
You can use our free business location audit tool to view your local listings and get direct links to your public listings.
Many attorneys have a collection of professional and social media profiles on platforms like LinkedIn, AVVO, Twitter and Facebook. Some profiles may even have expenses associated with them like SuperLawyers and Martindale Hubbell. Before pulling the plug on them, some thought should be put into determining if there is any value in these profiles worth pursuing.
Most of the time, a retiring attorney will completely delete and remove their professional social media profiles after retirement, especially if the accounts were nothing more than self-promoting placeholders for the firm without any real audience engagement.
For attorneys who have used social media to grow their practice and have amassed a significant following and/or expertise in a given area of practice, maintaining a social media presence may be an activity in retirement that could generate referral income. Some firms may be interested in creating an of-counsel relationship with the retiring attorney just for the social media exposure.
Our advice to clients is to shut down any accounts that are not being used or were simply for self-promotion (i.e. Read our new blog! Check out our newsletter…). Also, professional listings with an annual expense, like SuperLawyers, should be cancelled. If there is some remaining hobby interest, or potential to create referral income through social media, they should consider pursuing that.
If you’re a client and would like help with retiring your online presence, we’re here to help. In fact, we even have a retirement service that will tidily close things down for you following best practices. Just drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, you’ve made it! If you’re reading this article because you’re about to retire, congratulations and best of luck in your next chapter. We hope this information has given you guidance and peace-of-mind with how to properly send your online presence off into the sunset.