Law Firm Dissolution
Opinion outlines professional responsibilities of lawyers involved in a law firm dissolution.
What are the ethical responsibilities of lawyers involved in a firm dissolution?
The dissolution of a law firm involves four potential areas of ethical concern for the principals involved: (a) the continuity of service to clients; (b) the right of clients to counsel of their choice; (c) the obligation of the principals to deal honestly with each other; (d) the involvement of clients in the disputes of the principals; and (e) the protection of the property of clients entrusted to the firm.
A. The Continuity of Service to Clients
Canon VII of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct requires that an attorney represent his or her client zealously. This Canon, and the Rules adopted pursuant to it, require that the attorneys involved in dissolution take care that they continue to fulfill the lawful objectives of their clients.
While the client may have a contractual relationship with the firm, any professional relationships with regard to legal matters are necessarily personal as between the client and at least one identifiable attorney. Any attorney involved in such a professional relationship with a client at the time of dissolution has an obligation to continue the representation, as contemplated by the contract of employment, until the matter is concluded or, until the attorney is required or permitted to withdraw.
B. The Right of Clients to Counsel of Their Choice
The attorneys also must take care to notify present clients of the change in the relationship among the attorneys. In giving this notice, the right of clients freely to choose counsel must be preserved. Ideally, the attorneys will agree on the notice to be sent, who sends it, to whom it is sent, and when it is sent. CPR 24. In the absence of agreement, any attorneys in the firm who have had significant professional contact with the client may send such a notice. Each attorney in the firm who has an ongoing professional relationship with the client has an obligation to see to it that such a notice is sent. Rule 6(b)(1) and (2).
The attorneys must take particular care in notifying a present client for whom the firm is handling a current matter. In addition to notice of the change, such a client should be informed of the status of the matter, the attorney or attorneys who have been working on the matter, and should be asked to select an attorney or attorneys to continue the matter to conclusion. CPR 24, Rule 6(b)(1) and (2). Ideally, this communication to present clients should be sent, by agreement, over the signatures of those attorneys who have had a professional relationship with the client. Any attorney who has had such contact with the client may communicate the information and make the request.
C. The Obligation of the Principals to Deal Honestly With Each Other
In allocating the firm's personal property, accounts receivable, fees to be received in the future for work in progress, and other assets and liabilities of the firm, the lawyers must deal with each other in compliance with their obligation to refrain from conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Rule 1.2(c).
D. The Involvement of Clients in the Disputes of the Principals
If the dissolution gives rise to disputes among the lawyers about their respective rights to the firm's personal property, accounts receivable, fees to be received in the future for work in progress, or other issues, the attorneys should strive to resolve such disputes amicably without involving the clients in negotiations or litigation. If the attorneys are unable to resolve such disputes by agreement, they should resolve them, where possible, by arbitration.
E. The Protection of the Property of Clients Entrusted to the Firm
A full and complete accounting of all fiduciary property of clients entrusted to the firm should be made to each client, with written request for their return or future disposition. Failure of the client to respond should be taken as a request for the return of said fiduciary property to the client, unless governed by a Court Order or proceeding to the contrary.