Talk about an aging profession. More than 35% of the licensed attorneys in the State of Texas are over the age of 55.
Just like other professionals, lawyers can retire, move, get hit by lightning, or die. If that happens to your lawyer, then it can leave you, the client, in a mess.
You need to protect yourself from the unintentional fallout. Before we get to the steps you should take, consider the following basic information.
The attorney-client relationship lasts as long as the scope of engagement (the specific task or matter) lasts. If you engaged the attorney to do just one task for you, then your relationship is over when that task if finished. If you hired the attorney to represent you in an ongoing matter, then that relationship is over when the matter is over.
You have the absolute right to terminate your attorney-client relationship at any time.
Once your original engagement is completed, your relationship with your attorney is likewise completed. You have no obligation to return to the same attorney for even a related legal matter – there is no invisible tied that binds you together. Your original attorney does not have first dibs to probate your will or to handle the appeal of your case.
You own the file maintained by the original attorney on your case, and are entitled to possession of it when your engagement is over. If it was a paper file, then you are entitled to the paper. If it was an electronic file, then you are entitled to an electronic copy.
Attorneys only have to provide your file to you one time, and then only if you request it. Attorneys are not required to keep their files forever.
In Texas, the State Bar of Texas maintains a website with the contact information for every attorney licensed to practice law in Texas.
Now we are back to the original point: What should you do to protect yourself in case your attorney stops practicing law?
Two simple steps are all you need. First, do not have your lawyer or law firm store your original documents. Take your originals with you.
Second, request a copy of your file at the end of your case.
If it is too late to do that and you have managed to mislay your attorney, then try the following, in no particular order.
Check the Texas State Bar website for your attorney’s name and for any of his or her law partners.
Do an internet search for the attorney’s name. You may have to add the word “obituary.” If you get a hit, then you should be able to track down the probate and/or contact person.
Check the Texas Unclaimed Property Division of the State Comptroller (many lawyers will turn over client property when they retire).
If you are missing your original will, check the County Clerk’s office.
Search on an internet “people-finder” type site.
And you can always hire another attorney. Lightning can’t strike twice, right?
Virginia Hammerle is a Texas attorney whose practice includes estate planning, guardianship and probate. Sign up for her newsletter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Hammerle Finley Law Firm to schedule a consultation at hammerle.com.
This column does not constitute legal advice.