Commonwealth Journal

November 29, 2013

Panel studying issue of lawyers who abandon their practices

Clients left at risk

The Associated Press
Associated Press

A state task force has been appointed to review the problem of lawyers deserting their practices, abruptly leaving clients without representation.
Kentucky Bar Association President Tom Rouse created the panel to deal with what he sees as a pressing issue.
“When an attorney leaves, closes or abandons his practice, it puts the public at risk,” Rouse told The Cincinnati Enquirer in a story published Friday. “That lawyer can hold the lives and fortunes of a whole lot of people in their files.”
The newspaper said the issue isn’t unique to Kentucky. Michigan, Ohio and Utah also are looking at implementing new rules to help protect clients.
Rouse attributes Kentucky’s spike in abandoned practices to a rise in instances of depression, even suicide, among lawyers.
While Kentucky doesn’t track suicides by occupation, the newspaper cited studies that show lawyers are six times more likely to kill themselves than the general population. Rouse says at least a dozen lawyers in Kentucky have committed suicide since 2010.
Exacerbating the problem are aging attorneys who die and leave no one to take over cases.
The American Bar Association has been campaigning for at least 15 years to get lawyers to adopt contingency plans in the event they can no longer practice. The plan should, at a minimum, include the designation of a “surrogate lawyer.” The surrogate would have the authority to review client flies and make determinations as to which files need immediate attention, and who would notify the clients of their lawyer’s death.
“The overriding concern of the courts and the organized bar is the protection of clients who might be harmed when a law practice is abandoned for whatever reason,” said Erlanger lawyer William T. “Bill” Robinson III, a past president of the American Bar Association.
Indiana adopted a rule that appoints retired judges as surrogates when lawyers in solo practices gets sick, die or abandon their clients. Indiana’s rule was the result of an attorney who walked away from his practice and moved to Australia.
The Indiana rule also allows for a four-month suspension of all deadlines in the cases picked up from abandoned practices.
Ohio’s rule presently allows a committee that disciplines lawyers or a committee of a local bar association to appoint an attorney to inventory the files at an abandoned practice.
The Kentucky Supreme Court has a rule that calls for the Supreme Court to appoint commissioners to liquidate an abandoned practices but Rouse said more is needed. The rule doesn’t provide the commissioners indemnity or compensation for their work. It also doesn’t explicitly order the commissioners to keep what they find in clients’ files confidential.
“We are going to do our best to come up with a system that works well and then let everyone know it is there,” Rouse said.
Rouse said he hopes the Kentucky task force will issue recommendations by spring. Those recommendations would have to first be approved by the Kentucky Bar Association’s rules committee, then the Kentucky Supreme Court rules committee and then the entire Supreme Court.
“Sometimes these rules take a couple of years to go in place,” Rouse said. “Sometimes they are done in a couple of months, depending on the urgency of the issue. I would hope that this would be the latter.”