CI-681 Superceded by RI-49
December 15, 1981
While a partner may mail a dignified card announcing his or her withdrawal from a law firm and the establishment of his or her own practice to those firm clients with whom he/she has had significant personal contact, the partner may not include statements concerning his or her willingness to continue to represent the client, his or her expertise in the area or the procedure for discharging his of her former firm.
A withdrawing partner or attorney may not take copies of client files without the knowledge of the other partners before the clients have terminated with the firm and retained the withdrawing partner or attorney and requested the firm to turn over the client's files to the withdrawing partner or attorney.
References: DR 2-102(A)(2); Supreme Court Administrative Order 1978-4.
You state that you wish to leave the professional legal corporation of which you are presently in income-sharing partner and propose to start your own practice. In order to secure the clients you have represented while with the firm, you suggest the following actions:
- Personal contact with the clients advising them of your departure, your new address, your willingness to continue to represent them, your knowledge of their vases and the specific area of law involved, and the procedure for discharging the firm and securing your services if they wish to do so.
- Preparation of a letter discharge of the firm for the client to sign, if the client requests your continued representation and requests that you inform the firm of the discharge.
- Taking copies of the firm files with you in the event that clients follow you, so that you may continue the cases even though the firm may refuse to turn the files over to you.
The clients involved are clients whom you have brought to the firm, those who have come to the firm as a result of advertising, those who were referred to you by the lawyer referral service and those who have come to the firm through the other partners.
This Committee has considered the question of announcements to clients of an attorney's former law firm on a number of occasions. An associate leaving the employment of a law firm and establishing a private practice of his or her own may not send notices of his or her leaving to the clients of the former firm unless it is clear that the client was retaining the attorney personally, and not the firm. See CI-263 and CI-662. A partner withdrawing from a partnership may send announcements to his or her own clients and to those clients of the firm with whom he or she has had sufficient personal contact to warrant the conclusion that the client would have a legitimate interest in knowing of a new association. See CI-517 and CI-662. The requirements of 'personal contact' with the client follow the ABA position on this issue. See ABA Informal Opinion 241, 681 and 910.
It would be proper, therefore, for you to send a simple, dignified card announcing your departure from the firm and the establishment of your own practice to your own clients and to those firm clients with whom you have had the requisite personal contact.
Any other statements regarding your willingness to continue to represent the client, your expertise in the area or the procedure for discharging the firm or any actions such as preparation of a letter of discharge would be inappropriate. Such actions would amount to a solicitation or inducement of the client to terminate with your former firm. The decision as to choice of attorney is one that the client should make on his or her own initiative. This Committee opined in CI-263 that:
"The client remains a client of the firm until the client gives the firm notice of termination of his or her employment of the firm. You may not solicit or induce the client to terminate with the firm. It would not be proper for you to unilaterally contact these clients to give them a choice of attorney."
As to the propriety of taking copies of the firm files with you in the event the client requests your continued representation, there is no opinion directly on point. However, this issue has been addressed by the ABA in Informal Opinion C-787 that states:
"[T]he acts of the attorney employed by the partnership in removing the files upon which he or she had been working from the offices of the partnership without the knowledge of the partners would be highly improper, unethical and a violation of his or her obligation to his/her former employers."
While the above opinion dealt with a departing associate, it is equally applicable to a withdrawing partner. The files belong to the client, not to the particular attorney. The proper course of action regarding the files is as follows. If a client, on his or her own initiative, terminates employment of your former law firm in order to retain you, the client should request that the firm turn over the file to you. Your former firm will be bound to deliver the files to you. You may not take copies of client files before the clients have made a decision to retain you simply because you fear unethical conduct on the part of your former partner (i.e., refusal to give you clients' files at the request of the clients).