What Is the Attorney’s Obligation to Return the Client File in California?

Jan 14, 2019 | Blog

If a client no longer wants to use their current attorney’s legal services, what is the attorney’s obligation to return the client file in the State of California? When we examine the ABA’s Model Rule 1.16(d), we learn that an attorney must “surrender papers and property to which the client is entitled.”

While there is an attorney obligation to return the client file, that particular model rule tells us what to do, but it doesn’t really mention which documents or property the client is entitled to receive. So, how do you know what you should turn over as the client file when you’re a practicing lawyer in California? This post will help you figure it out.

Which Documents Should California Lawyers Turn Over as Part of the Client File?

California’s Rules of Professional Conduct state that if termination of representation is done for any reason, and subject to an applicable protective order, NDA, or law, the attorney has the obligation to release documents, at the client’s request, all client materials and property. The rule, Rule 1.16, clarifies this as “correspondence, pleadings, deposition transcripts, experts’ reports and other writings, exhibits, and physical evidence, whether in tangible, electronic or other form, and other items reasonably necessary to the client’s representation, whether the client has paid for them or not.”

It is also important to consider the current status of the matter. If you have notes, research, and legal document drafts that you’ve not filed yet, the new lawyer may need those items to continue to represent the best interest of the client. Of course, you may have noticed that California’s Rule 1.16 is fairly descriptive and includes correspondence, pleadings, and other writings. There are exceptions notated in the rule. Make sure that you read the rule as well as exceptions so that you can follow the right course of action.

The rule also points out that the attorney’s obligation to return the client file may be impacted if there is a duty of non-disclosure owed. Consider whether releasing certain information will impact a third party and cause you to violate an existing NDA.

What about Paperless Law Offices?

More and more law offices are paperless or paper lite. Remember that California Rules of Professional Conduct state that the attorney has an obligation to return the client file regardless of whether it is tangible, electronic, or in another form.

Ethical Compliance Is a Must

If you’re a California lawyer, it is your obligation to return the client file as defined by the State’s Rules of Professional Conduct. Talk with the client to figure out what they do or don’t need. If you were notified by the California Bar that an ethical complaint was filed against you, schedule a consultation with Zavieh Law.