Clients’ Documents Held Hostage

Weekly, I see may people who are not satisfied with the services they have been receiving from their current representative. The most disturbing to me is that while they are unhappy with their current representative, they believe that their representative will harm their case, or retain their file if they choose to discontinue representation with that attorney.

My advice is simple: the documents belong to you! In the United States, a client is free to choose the representative of his or her choice, and cannot legally be bound to continue paying for “services.” The standard procedure among reputable attorneys when a client has chosen a new representative is simply to send a “notice of Substitution of Counsel” to the former attorney, at which time that attorney is to forward all documents to the new attorney and cease all communication with that client.

Ordinarily, when I send such a letter to another lawyer, my client’s request is respected, and that attorney will send all documents in the client’s file. There are, however, a small number of attorneys who attempt to contact their former clients after receiving a substitution of counsel notice, or attempt to hold their former clients’ files “ransom” in an effort to coerce the client into continuing to make payments, or to force representation.

We have a strict policy of returning all original documents to our clients immediately upon photocopying them. We believe that clients are motivated to pay their fees because their attorney is providing quality legal representation and not because the attorney is holding their original documents hostage. Moreover, when a client chooses to discontinue the services of his attorney, there simply is no reason for the attorney to hold any documents.

The rule is simple: client files are client property. Rule 3-700(D)(1) of the California State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct requires that once an attorney’s representation has been terminated, the attorney shall promptly release to the client all the client’s papers and property. “Client papers and property” includes correspondence, pleadings, deposition transcripts, exhibits, physical evidence, expert’s reports and other items reasonably necessary t o the client’s representation.”

As you can plainly see, the definition of what is your property is very broad. Virtually everything in your file belongs to you, as a client. If you choose to seek alternative representation, your present attorney must comply with your new attorney’s request for your property, without attempting to prevent you from leaving his law office. The former client need not be involved in this transition process whatsoever.

The reasons a client may become dissatisfied with their representation are manifold. Maybe the attorney never returns your calls, overcharges, or prefers to paint a rosy picture of the case by drawing on a blackboard happy faces as opposed to rendering solid legal explanations of the case. The reason is not particularly relevant. Also, lawyers must hold all of their clients’ information confidential. They cannot communicate any of the information to the INS. It is important to understand that you are free to choose your lawyer, and your PROPERTY must be promptly forwarded to the new attorney.