Files of a Deceased Lawyer
Opinion rules that a lawyer appointed conservator of a deceased lawyer's files should comply with the instructions of the court and seek to preserve valuable documents and confidential information.
Attorney A represents Client W, the widow of Attorney Y. Attorney Y practiced law in the area for approximately twenty-five years, during which time he accumulated numerous files. Attorney A has been appointed conservator of Attorney Y's files by the senior resident Superior Court Judge. As conservator, and counsel for Client W, Attorney A contacted each of Attorney Y's clients who had active files in his office at the time of Attorney Y's death. Most of those clients have picked up their files.
Attorney Y was associated with one other lawyer at the time of his death. Shortly after Y's death, that other lawyer opened up his own practice in a separate building.
Client W is planning to sell the office building where Y's practice was located and needs to do something with the numerous files that were accumulated over the years. Specifically, is the estate authorized to file these files in another attorney's office or in the Clerk's Office if such accommodations can be arranged? If those accommodations cannot be arranged, must the estate store these files indefinitely? Can the estate attempt to notify the clients involved by legal advertisement in the paper and then physically destroy all files not picked up in a reasonable period of time? Attorney A is concerned about problems of client confidentiality if files are turned over to another law firm. Attorney A is also concerned about the loss of valuable documents if files are shredded and destroyed.
What may Attorney A ethically do to handle the problem of Y's files?
The Bar cannot speak as to what the estate may or may not do as the estate is not an attorney bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Nor is Attorney Y's widow subject to the Rules. Nor can the Bar speak to any legal questions of the client's rights to their files.
Attorney A, as counsel for W and as conservator of Y's files, should seek to advise W reasonably according to any potential obligations she may have and should seek direction and approval from the court which appointed him conservator. There appear to be few ethics opinions dealing with ultimate disposition of the files of a deceased lawyer, particularly inactive files. On the other hand, many jurisdictions have dealt with the question of what an attorney or firm may do with their own files which become inactive and have recognized that even an attorney in active practice is not required to retain entire files indefinitely. Generally, opinions have suggested that an attorney concerned with his own files may notify clients that inactive files may be destroyed within a reasonable period of time if the client does not pick up the file or direct that it be transferred to another attorney. In destroying files, opinions have generally suggested that attorneys should not destroy items which actually belong to the client, information useful in the assertion or defense of a client's position in a matter for which the statute of limitations has not expired, or information which the client may need, does not already have, and which is not readily available otherwise. Generally, attorneys should also retain accounts or records of their receipts or disbursements and an index or identification of destroyed files. In determining what should be destroyed, the files should be screened and determinations made according to the nature and contents of those files. See ABA Informal Opinion 1384 (March 14, 1977); Kentucky Bar Association Opinion E-300 (January 11, 1985); New York City Bar Association Opinion 82-15 (February 6, 1985); Maryland Opinion 85-77, 801 ABA/BNA Lawyer's Manual on Professional Conduct at 4359.
As an attorney, Attorney A is not in the same position as he would be with regard to the disposition of his own files, but should have due regard to the considerations involved in disposition of files of an attorney. Thus, Attorney A should take note of confidential information as governed by Rule 4 of the Rules of Professional Conduct and should avoid simply transferring a case to another attorney, without the client's instruction or consent, for handling by that other attorney. Storage in a reasonable location, whether in another attorney's office or elsewhere, would certainly be appropriate. Otherwise, Attorney A should comply with the direction of the court which appointed him conservator and follow his personal conscience and sense of professional responsibility in making every effort to see that files are dealt with appropriately.