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RULE 4-5.8 PROCEDURES FOR LAWYERS LEAVING LAW FIRMS AND DISSOLUTION OF LAW FIRMS

4 RULES OF PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT
4-5 LAW FIRMS AND ASSOCIATIONS

RULE 4-5.8 PROCEDURES FOR LAWYERS LEAVING LAW FIRMS AND DISSOLUTION OF LAW FIRMS

(a) Contractual Relationship Between Law Firm and Clients. The contract for legal services creates the legal relationships between the client and law firm and between the client and individual members of the law firm, including the ownership of the files maintained by the lawyer or law firm. Nothing in these rules creates or defines those relationships.

(b) Client’s Right to Counsel of Choice. Clients have the right to expect that they may choose counsel when legal services are required and, with few exceptions, nothing that lawyers and law firms do shall have any effect on the exercise of that right.

(c) Contact With Clients.

    (1) Lawyers Leaving Law Firms. Absent a specific agreement otherwise, a lawyer who is leaving a law firm shall not unilaterally contact those clients of the law firm for purposes of notifying them about the anticipated departure or to solicit representation of the clients unless the lawyer has approached an authorized representative of the law firm and attempted to negotiate a joint communication to the clients concerning the lawyer leaving the law firm and bona fide negotiations have been unsuccessful.

    (2) Dissolution of Law Firm. Absent a specific agreement otherwise, a lawyer involved in the dissolution of a law firm shall not unilaterally contact clients of the law firm unless, after bona fide negotiations, authorized members of the law firm have been unable to agree on a method to provide notice to clients.

(d) Form for Contact With Clients.
    (1) Lawyers Leaving Law Firms. When a joint response has not been successfully negotiated, unilateral contact by individual members or the law firm shall give notice to clients that the lawyer is leaving the law firm and provide options to the clients to choose to remain a client of the law firm, to choose representation by the departing lawyer, or to choose representation by other lawyers or law firms.

    (2) Dissolution of Law Firms. When a law firm is being dissolved and no procedure for contacting clients has been agreed upon, unilateral contact by members of the law firm shall give notice to clients that the firm is being dissolved and provide options to the clients to choose representation by any member of the dissolving law firm, or representation by other lawyers or law firms.

    (3) Liability for Fees and Costs. In all instances, notice to the client required under this rule shall provide information concerning potential liability for fees for legal services previously rendered, costs expended, and how any deposits for fees or costs will be handled. In addition, if appropriate, notice shall be given that reasonable charges may be imposed to provide a copy of any file to a successor lawyer.

(e) Nonresponsive Clients.
    (1) Lawyers Leaving Law Firms. In the event a client fails to advise the lawyers and law firm of the client’s intention in regard to who is to provide future legal services when a lawyer is leaving the firm, the client shall be considered as remaining a client of the firm until the client advises otherwise.

    (2) Dissolution of Law Firms. In the event a client fails to advise the lawyers of the client’s intention in regard to who is to provide future legal services when a law firm is dissolving, the client shall be considered as remaining a client of the lawyer who primarily provided the prior legal services on behalf of the firm until the client advises otherwise.
Comment

The current rule of law regarding ownership of client files is discussed in Donahue v. Vaughn, 721 So. 2d 356 (Fla. 5th DCA 1998), and Dowda & Fields, P.A. v. Cobb, 452 So. 2d 1140 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984). A lawyer leaving a law firm, when the law firm remains available to continue legal representation, has no right nor expectation to take client files without an agreement with the law firm to do so.

While clients have the right to choose counsel, such choice may implicate obligations. Those obligations may include a requirement to pay for legal services previously rendered and costs expended in connection with the representation as well as a reasonable fee for copying the client’s file.

Whether individual members have any individual legal obligations to a client is a matter of contract law, tort law, or court rules that is outside the scope of rules governing lawyer conduct. Generally, individual lawyers have such obligations only if provided for in the contract for representation. Nothing in this rule or in the contract for representation may alter the ethical obligations that individual lawyers have to clients as provided elsewhere in these rules.

It is anticipated that in most instances a lawyer leaving a law firm and the law firm will engage in bona fide, good faith negotiations and craft a joint communication providing adequate information to the client so that the client may make a fully informed decision concerning future representation. In those instances in which bona fide negotiations are unsuccessful, unilateral communication may be made by the departing lawyer or the law firm. In such circumstances, great care should be taken to meet the obligation of adequate communication and for this reason the specific requirements of subdivisions (d)(1) & (3) are provided.

Most law firms have some written instrument creating the law firm and specifying procedures to be employed upon dissolution of the firm. However, when such an instrument does not exist or does not adequately provide for procedures in the event of dissolution, the provisions of this rule are provided so that dissolution of the law firm does not disproportionately affect client rights.

As in instances of a lawyer departing a law firm, lawyers involved in the dissolution of law firms have a continuing obligation to provide adequate information to a client so that the client may make informed decisions concerning future representation.

The Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Advisory Service has sample forms for notice to clients and sample partnership and other contracts that are available to members. The forms may be accessed on the bar’s website, www.flabar.org, or by calling The Florida Bar headquarters in Tallahassee.

Lawyers involved in either a change in law firm composition or law firm dissolution may have duties to notify the court if the representation is in litigation. If the remaining law firm will continue the representation of the client, no notification of the change in firm composition to the court may be required, but such a notification may be advisable. If the departing lawyer will take over representation of the client, a motion for substitution of counsel or a motion by the firm to withdraw from the representation may be appropriate. If the departing lawyer and the law firm have made the appropriate request for the client to select either the departing lawyer or the law firm to continue the representation, but the client has not yet responded, the law firm should consider notifying the court of the change in firm composition, although under ordinary circumstances, absent an agreement to the contrary, the firm will continue the representation in the interim. If the departing lawyer and the law firm have agreed regarding who will continue handling the client’s matters then, absent disagreement by the client, the agreement normally will determine whether the departing lawyer or the law firm will continue the representation.


[Revised: 01/01/2006]