A lawyer has left our law firm to practice elsewhere. What are the appropriate steps to review emails addressed to this attorney at our law firm email address?
The law firm has a very specific duty to continue to oversee email correspondence sent to the departed attorney at the law firm email address. The obligation is to ensure that any emails coming to the law firm email address are reviewed to provide either for continued representation of those clients that are staying with the law firm or for transmission of the information to the departed attorney if the communication relates to a client that has decided to stay with the departed attorney. It would not be appropriate to simply shut down the email address or redirect every email to the new email address of the departed lawyer without any review by someone in his or her former law firm.
The general rule is that a client hires a law firm to provide representation. This results in the law firm having an ongoing obligation to review correspondence, including email, directed to the departed lawyer at the law firm address and then decide whether that information relates to a current client or a departed client. It also is clear, however, that the law firm should not withhold email communication that has been sent to the departed lawyer at the law firm address, whether it is personal email communication or client-related email communication.
A recent ethics opinion from the Philadelphia Bar Association Professional Guidance Committee addressed the conduct of a law firm that took the position that any email coming into the firm was presumably firm email and must be reviewed by the law firm. The firm programmed the attorney’s email account to send a reply to any email sender indicating that the departed attorney was no longer in the firm but also opened and read any email and forwarded appropriate email to the departed lawyer relating to any legal matter on which he continued to provide representation.
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The Philadelphia Bar Association Professional Guidance Committee noted that there was no specific rule or comment that addressed this issue. The committee then stated that the law firm had a duty to protect the interests of clients during any transition period and that the law firm also had a duty to keep clients informed of the departure of an attorney and to ensure that active matters continued to be managed by lawyers in the firm or emails were properly transmitted to the departed lawyer for continued representation. In other words, the law firm was required to take reasonable steps to protect the interests of every client whether the client remained with the law firm or left with the departed lawyer. The opinion concluded that it was not appropriate to simply return to the sender any email sent to the lawyer who had left the law firm.
The committee also cautioned that all reply messages sent automatically, indicating that the departed lawyer was no longer with the law firm, must contain the lawyer’s new contact information. Finally, the committee noted that the law firm must be ready to provide sufficient information to any client if asked how to contact the departed lawyer.
The use of email in law practice has become the norm. It allows for very quick communication between a client and a lawyer. If a lawyer leaves a firm, the firm has various duties to ensure that the interests of all clients are protected whether the client stayed with the firm or left with the departed lawyer. The law firm must also provide sufficient information to those clients that have left the firm to make sure that they are able to properly communicate with the departed lawyer.