What is the file? Helpful guidance from Arizona.

Questions related to file delivery & retention are among the most common that I receive via ethics inquiry.  It’s odd, if only because so few of the complaints that are filed allege that a file wasn’t delivered or was incomplete.  Of course, I understand that with respect to the latter, a client likely wouldn’t know to complain about missing items.  Still, my general sense is that Vermont lawyers are on top of the duty to deliver the file.

But therein lies the rub: the duty is not to deliver the file.  Rather, upon the termination of the representation, V.R.Pr.C. 1.16(d) requires a lawyer “to take steps reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interests.”  Among other things, the duty includes “surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled.”

Aside, and no offense to readers who are fans of Cheap Trick, but once I get around to proposing a rule change, I doubt I’ll recommend continued use of any form of the word “surrender.”**  I much prefer “deliver” or “provide.”  Alas, I digress.

Anyhow, the question: to what papers and property is the client entitled?  Or, what is “the file?”

In 2015, the ABA’ Standing Committee on Ethics & Professional Responsibility provided guidance in Formal Advisory Opinion 471.  I blogged about it here.  Both the opinion and my post list the items that must be delivered, as well as items that need not be provided. In other words, the opinion helps lawyers to determine what constitutes the file.  Frankly, while the opinion and my blog post are helpful, neither fully answers “what is the file?”

Fortunately, and thanks to a tip from Professor Bernabe’s Professional Responsibility Blog, I came across an advisory opinion that clarifies and simplifies the duty and analysis.

Last month, the Arizona Supreme Court’s Attorney Ethics Advisory Committee issued Ethics Opinion EO-19-0009.   Professor Bernabe blogged about it here

To me, the Arizona opinion does a terrific job answering “what is the file?” plain language. Here’s the committee’s summary of its opinion:

  • “Lawyers must retain sufficient information regarding the work they have done on a matter to permit the client to understand what was done for them and to permit a subsequent lawyer to take up the matter if the lawyer is discharged, withdraws, or is unable to continue the representation for other reasons such as death, disability, or discipline. This obligation informs the lawyers’ obligations concerning what materials they keep, how they store and organize those materials, and what they do with records at the end of a representation.”

Isn’t that exactly it? In other words, let’s fight the urge to be lawyers and debate every possible item – “what about this, what about that.”  Instead, let’s use common sense: “would this help the client or the client’s next lawyer figure out what I did for the client?” Or, as the committee notes later in the opinion:

  • “Lawyers do not maintain files for the sake of preserving files, but rather because keeping records of what they have done or plan to do in the course of representation is part of diligent, competent representation.”

Indeed!

That’s all I have for now.  However, I’m already planning a future post on other aspects of the Arizona opinion, including a paragraph that I expect will resonate with many lawyers who’ve contacted me.  By way of preview, here’s the pargraph from our friends in the southwest:

  • “The client is entitled to a single copy for free, and the lawyer may charge for additional copies or special copying requests that have associated costs, such as, scanning a file maintained in paper form. Lawyers may satisfy their obligations by providing copies throughout the representation, and do not need to provide additional free copies of those documents previously provided at the end of the representation. Of course, the lawyer may choose to provide more documents or copies than are required.”

Stay tuned!

** “Surrender, surrender, but don’t give yourself away.” Is this another way of stating that a lawyer need not include work product in the file?

Cheap Trick Surrender

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