A retiring lawyer’s open letter to younger lawyers on lessons learned the hard way
Winding down a law practice is hard work. In this open letter to lawyers who are not yet contemplating retirement, a solo practitioner from Austin, Minnesota describes the process and offers advice to make it less arduous. (Hint: Go paperless now.)
You will thank me someday for this letter. I am a solo practitioner. I am retiring in the near future. Lawyers in firms with younger members shouldn’t have this problem that I have found myself confronting.
Here is what I have learned about client files and closing a solo law practice.
I started this process knowing that I could turn my files over to another law firm, but to do that I have to send written notice to each client whose file I am placing with a different firm. I have to give the client a chance to retrieve their file from me before I give it to anyone else. Confidentiality is the issue. At $.49 per stamp per mailing times several thousand files, plus the cost of envelopes plus the hassle of getting the mailing addresses and putting the mailing labels on the envelopes, and waiting to see if they even respond—it’s a huge task in terms of money and time. (The post office advised me to use regular mail, as the cost of a bulk mailing permit would make bulk mail more expensive than regular mail.)
And if a client wants his/her file, I will have to make a copy for my own protection if statutes of limitations have not passed. Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance is my malpractice company. They want me to retain files until 10 years have elapsed since the last work was completed. Longer in some situations–such as child support matters where the kids haven’t aged out, spousal maintenance, ante-nuptial agreements, estate planning documents, etc.
MLM advises me (if I understood them correctly) that a scanned/digital copy of the file is satisfactory and I can shred the file once I have scanned it. I have been in the process of scanning (and then shredding) the files that need to be retained. I am saving the scanned files to my computer, an external hard drive and to One Drive. I continue to shred without scanning the files that I determine are clearly not of any value or potential liability.
The ethics code requires that I return all original documents to the client. My practice has been to keep an original of each POA. I keep only photocopies of Trusts or Wills. My point is that this requirement of not shredding original documents is a hassle you will face someday, so review your policy about retaining originals. I am scanning my originals of clients’ POAs and I am keeping the originals all in one file. My clients always leave with several originals of their POA, yet I have had families contact me for my copy of the original (blue ink signed—not a photocopy) POA because they can’t find theirs.
I called a retired lawyer in a nearby town and learned that he has stored his client files. Once past the malpractice statute of limitations, I gather he will shred/destroy the files. I think that would be a viable solution, but I do not want to incur the expense and responsibility for storing the actual files. I would have to move them to a storage facility, which is a significant hassle—they are heavy and slippery and numerous trips would be necessary. My wife and I both do not want them in our basement. Storing incurs rental expense, and I would probably have to go to the storage unit occasionally to retrieve a file.
Using a local shredding service, I went through about half of the files and culled/shredded files that were clearly junk. (Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish that I had investigated the costs and ability to take the shreddable files to the Olmsted County (Rochester) Waste-to-Energy facility for incineration.) Each full bin cost me about $90. They came and picked up the bins and left empties. It cost $.27 per pound and I’ve been through about six bins with them and about six equivalent bins with another service. I have at least another eight to 10 bins to review.
I am dealing with many files opened years ago, but the people involved are still clients. I started out saving those files figuring I would ask a firm in town to take them. But then I learned about the duty to write those letters. So I decided to scan and shred those files. I spent about two months doing this before I decided to take a different course. It was slow going.
I have a Scansnap ix 500 scanner. If I had to do it over, I would have gone paperless long ago, with a scanner at my desk and at my assistant’s desk. Everything would get scanned and no paper would be retained. If a client wants their file, I would give them a digital copy of their file. MLM is okay with that procedure. This letter is a heads up for you to do this now—convert to a paperless office! The scanner costs about $450.
And by getting a scanner now, you can start pecking away at getting your old files scanned and shredded. Very time-consuming.
Staples! When I scan a file, I first have to remove all staples. They hide from me, but my scanner finds them and jams up. Stop using staples! You will regret later having used a stapler when you set about copying your files. They are a time-consuming pain to remove and they are dangerous. Update your work-comp policy and your tetanus shots! Brush up on your cuss words! If you are not going to convert to a paperless office, then use binder clips instead of staples.
I have certain clients to whom I feel some extra loyalty, and I intend to contact them about my retiring and ask them what to do with their files. (I will scan the files regardless of their instruction.)
Imagine if you drop dead. Who can do this all for you? If your files are digitized, you can go ahead and die and rest in peace. I hope the place we lawyers get sent to is peaceful—and not too hot! I wonder if a malpractice company would sell tail insurance to an estate? Especially if it is in disarray.
I haven’t yet figured out how to preserve my emails.
It isn’t entirely a bad process. It brings back many memories of clients and cases—some good and some not so good.
Malpractice insurance: I can buy a policy that protects me into retirement—for at least six years, I believe. Or I can purchase a one-year policy each year after retirement. The premiums for the one-year policy are high enough that in the fourth year I will have paid more than the $8,200 one-time premium for that first policy. I have decided I want to be insured for at least six years past my retirement date.
The process of scanning files as described above proved so time-consuming that I finally changed my mind. I decided to stop scanning and to transfer the remaining files to a local firm. So now my assistant and I will stop scanning and shredding and start going through the remaining files to collect names and addresses to make a mailing list with the capability of printing out mailing labels. I will send the clients a letter advising them of the transfer of files to the law firm and to give them an opportunity to stop in and get their file.
But how to place the files with another firm? I will share a copy of the letter that I sent via email attachment to several Austin firms. (See below) On the same day I sent the letter, one of the firms contacted me to accept the terms.
In a couple of months this process should be completed, and then my next project will be to figure out what to do with myself in retirement.
Author’s postscript: On February 27, we mailed out approximately 1,400 letters to clients advising them of my pending retirement and the need to dispose of the client files. I got back approximately 400 of the letters—return to sender. It took us about three weeks to research each of those client files to determine what to do with the file. We have called clients, emailed them, investigated through Google and also the local paper’s on-line obit file. Many of those files were old enough to allow us to determine they could be shredded without further attempt to contact the client.
SCOTT RICHARDSON graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1974 and joined Richardson Law Office in Austin, Minnesota, a firm started by his grandfather in 1930. Richardson’s father also practiced there from 1946 until his retirement in 1993.
Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank his legal assistant, Kristine Jensen, for her critically important help in the process of winding up the firm’s business.
Transferring Client Files: A sample proposal letter
I am in process of disposing of client files preparatory to retirement. I have approximately 2,100 files from 2003 to the present remaining to dispose of. I have already shredded many of the files from about 1950 up to 2003. Many of the files from that period I have scanned and then shredded. The process of inspecting each file, scanning it and then paying for it to be shredded is a significant hassle and expense.
If your firm would:
1. take possession of the remaining files and properly store them such as how you store your own files,
2. agree to retain the files for 10 years from the date of my last involvement with the client as indicated in the file. (Many of these files are already past that 10 year mark, but I believe the client still regards me as their attorney and therefore, I haven’t shredded the file),
3. agree to allow the client to take possession of their file at their request,
4. agree to scan the file prior to releasing it if a client demands to take the file to a different firm,
5. agree to allow me and/or my malpractice carrier to take possession of the file or retrieve a scan of it in the event of a possible malpractice claim against me (there are no pending claims that I am aware of),
6. and pay me $____.00 (part of the actual cost I will face in mailing notices out to these about 2,500 clients to obtain their consent to move the files to your possession and ownership) and (I believe that the files and the phone number have at least that much value) and (I would give the client a set time such as 45 days within which to contact me to take possession of their file.) I will obtain your approval of the content of the letter prior to mailing it.
Then, in exchange, I would be willing to:
a. give your firm the remaining files and transfer to you a copy of what we have scanned thus far,
b. give your firm the mailing list of the clients that I send the notice to (not the client’s addresses whose files
I have already shredded as I didn’t save those addresses on the file),
c. give your firm our card catalog that locates the file by alphabetical listing by client’s last name and the client’s file number (not on computer, but instead on recipe cards in a cabinet measuring about 30” deep by 2’ wide by 4’ tall – the cards are in the top three drawers that consume about 18” of the 4’ tall dimension),
d. participate in advertising this arrangement (announcement in the Herald, for example) that your firm now has my client files,
e. turn over to your firm ownership of my office phone number so that calls to that number will be received by your firm,
f. physically assist in moving the files to your storage area, and
g. sign a non-compete agreement in favor of your firm.
h. I cannot give you the addresses of the former clients whose files I have already shredded but not scanned. Those files are gone for good. The files that I have scanned and then shredded, I will get the addresses from the scanned file and include them in the mailing list. I do have a record of those files that I have shredded, but not scanned and I would give you a copy of that record.
i. If your firm ever is dissolved within the above-referenced 10 year period, you would make disposition of the files subject to the terms set forth in this letter.
You are welcome to stop in to inspect the quantity of files involved.
[end of letter]