The files you keep on your clients’ cases usually include documents (and sometimes other property) that your clients have given to you in connection with their cases. What happens to all this stuff when you’re no longer on the case? The answer: You’ve got to give it back.
The California Rules of Professional Conduct lay it all out. When an attorney’s “employment has terminated,” he or she must return all “client papers and property,” at a client’s request, including (Cal Rules of Prof Cond 3-700(D)(1)):
Expert’s reports; and
“Other items reasonably necessary to the client’s representation, whether the client has paid for them or not.”
What about valuable stuff from your client? Another professional conduct rule requires an attorney to identify and label “funds, securities, and other properties of a client” and put them either in a “safe deposit box or other place of safekeeping.” Cal Rules of Prof Cond 4-100(B)(2). An attorney must account to a client on such items, and promptly pay or deliver them to the client, as the client requests. Cal Rules of Prof Cond 4-100(B)(4). In addition, an attorney must maintain records of these items for at least 5 years after distributing them. Cal Rules of Prof Cond 4-100(B)(3).
And don’t even think about withholding the client’s stuff (e.g., for nonpayment of fees) in the guise of asserting some type of possessory lien. Also, don’t claim in a legal action with the client that the items are your protected work product. See CCP §2018.080.
For information on a file retention and disposition policy, check out our earlier blog post, When the Party’s Over: What to Do with Client Files? Looking for guidance in all aspects of your practice? Check out CEB’s California Client Communications Manual: Sample Letters and Forms, chap 8.
This material is reproduced from Julie Brook’s blog entry, Return to Sender, on the CEB Blog December 12, 2012. Copyright 2012 by the Regents of the University of California. Reproduced with permission of Continuing Education of the Bar - California. For information about CEB publications, telephone toll free 1-800-CEB-3444 or visit our Web site: CEB.com.