As a lawyer, you know that when a client requests their file, you must provide it. If you don’t, you could become the subject of a legal ethics complaint. Yet, you must consider what documents and property should be handed over in the client file. Do you know what you must produce? We’ve created this list of key considerations to help you determine what should be returned.
Examine the Rules of Your Jurisdiction
Before you do anything else, read the rules in your jurisdiction. Those rules could help clarify what must be produced as part of the client file. Many jurisdictions have extremely detailed rules related to this.
Consider the Status of the Matter
If the matter is on-going, you may need to turn over work product, drafts, notes, and research to help protect the client’s legal interests. Also, providing these items when a matter is open helps prove that the client received something of value during the time they engaged your services. Producing those items can also be used in your defense if the client files a legal ethics complaint against you.
For matters that are closed or inactive, there may be no reason for you to turn over the items previously mentioned in this section because they wouldn’t be of much use to the client.
How Might the Material Impact Others?
As you review items that you think qualify as part of the client file, you must consider how releasing the material could impact others. For example, if you owe the duty of non-disclosure to a third-party, you may not be required to release the material as part of the client file.
Is It Reasonable?
Under ABA Model Rule 1.16(d), a lawyer must “take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interest.” So, what is reasonable? It varies from case to case and the requests made by the client. For example, if a client wanted all the text messages on your phone that related to their case, that could be considered unreasonable if they’re difficult to retrieve. If the text messages have no real significance, it would seem reasonable for you to turn down that request.
Were You Served with a Legal Ethics Complaint?
If you’re served with a legal ethics complaint in California, remain calm. Read the entire complaint. Then, consider whether you should represent yourself or get legal help. Zavieh Law provides both limited and full scope representation for lawyers undergoing a legal ethics investigation. To schedule a phone consultation with Zavieh Law, click here.
If you receive an ethics complaint from the California Bar and you’re not sure where you should start, check out The State Bar Playbook. This is Megan’s interactive and easy to use guide (and community!) that will help guide you through the process from receipt of the complaint all the way through the appeals process!