When a lawyer who is part of a firm retires, dies, is disabled, or loses a license to practice, there likely will be other firm lawyers who can continue to represent the departing lawyer's clients, or at least have the authority and responsibility to review client files and determine what needs to be done. What happens when the lawyer does not share a practice with other lawyers, but, instead, is a sole practitioner?
Q: What kinds of problems arise when a lawyer's practice closes?
A: Lawyers generally have ongoing legal matters being handled for their clients that are pending in or out of court. They may have files containing important information, clients' funds held in a trust account, or other client property or documents such as wills. When one can plan a departure, as in the usual retirement, there is time to handle these matters, but when departure is abrupt, there may not be.
Q: What am I entitled to as a client?
A: When a lawyer ceases to represent clients for any reason, clients are entitled to their files and to any property the lawyer holds for them. When lawyers withdraw from matters in which they are representing clients, they must ensure their clients are not damaged by the withdrawal and must return unearned fees.
Q: Why can't client matters, files, and property simply be sent to another lawyer willing to handle them when a lawyer stops practicing?
A: Client matters are confidential, and clients have the right to choose their own lawyers. Client information and files cannot be given to other lawyers outside a firm without client permission. Lawyers who are retiring, or who can anticipate suspension of their right to practice, will generally have time to notify clients and return files and property or obtain permission to provide them to a lawyer approved by the client.
Q: What happens in the case of more abrupt departures?
A: The Rules for the Government of the Bar of Ohio contain a provision that permits the Supreme Court of Ohio's Disciplinary Counsel and certain bar association committees to appoint attorneys to inventory the files of deceased lawyers, certain suspended lawyers, and lawyers who have abandoned their practices, if there is no other capable party to conduct the lawyer's affairs, and to take necessary action short of representing the clients. This procedure is likely to be slow for clients who need immediate attention or access to information or property.
Q: Are there other parties that clients may need to contact?
A: Where a lawyer is deceased, it is usually the lawyer's executor who will have responsibility for the lawyer's legal affairs. Disabled lawyers may have guardians. It may be necessary to contact a guardian or other personal representative, or, if a lawyer has intentionally abandoned a practice, a disciplinary agency. Lawyers who are suspended or disbarred must immediately notify clients and courts, tell clients to seek other representation, return client papers and property, and refund unearned fees. Because suspension orders take effect immediately and timing and results can be unpredictable, this may create, especially in pending trials, inconvenience for clients, lawyers, and courts.
Q: What should clients do when a lawyer abruptly ceases practice and immediate action is needed?
A: Where there are ongoing legal problems that need immediate attention, it will generally be best to contact another lawyer. Clients are entitled to discharge one lawyer and hire another at any time, and another lawyer will probably be in the best position to determine how to obtain necessary information and take appropriate action.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Mark H. Aultman, a Columbus-area attorney, and updated by the Ohio State Bar Association.