When we dream of inheritances, we picture a long-lost relative leaving us a king’s ransom. If only this were the case when I inherited a law practice. My experience came about after a friend and colleague was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor and passed within a few months. I found that there is little money to be gained when inheriting a practice, but a large amount of work to be done.
The first thing I did was draft a letter to all my colleague’s clients, active and inactive, telling them the office was closing and that their files would be at my office for pickup. I felt it important in this letter to let the client know I was only holding the file and that I had not agreed to represent the client.
Next was the arduous task of reviewing someone else’s files. It soon became apparent that my colleague had not kept good notes on all the files, and more than a few had been mislabeled or misfiled before they got to my office. All the files, both opened and closed, would have to be reviewed from the ground up. This stage was like mining for gold—a lot of hard work and little to show for it.
Working the opened cases is the most challenging part of taking over someone else’s practice. After getting the files to my office and reviewing them, I sent a second letter explaining to my colleague’s clients what work remained on the cases and if there were any deadlines to be aware of. Once again, I stated that I was not representing them at this point.
When reviewing each file, I asked myself a series of questions: Is this a case I want to take? Is this a case I am qualified to take? Is there a conflict of interest? Is there any money in it? The practice I inherited was an immigration practice composed exclusively of fixed-fee cases with varying portions paid. This is why my letters to clients had to state in no uncertain terms that I did not represent them. Even though I stated it twice, a majority assumed that, because I possessed the file, I had to represent them, and that the contract they had signed with the other attorney was binding on me. Many wouldn’t accept the fact that their money was spent, their attorney was dead, their agreement with him was likewise dead, and I had not received any money from him to take their case. If they wanted me to continue with the case, it would cost more money. Other monetary issues might have arisen as well: What if anything had been owed to the attorney’s estate? Where was the IOLTA money? How could it be accessed? Fortunately, I did not have to deal with any of these issues. For cases that I did accept, I figured out a prorated fee. Where I wasn’t comfortable handling the matter or where the clients wouldn’t sign an agreement with my office, I advised that they seek new counsel and gave them their file after they signed a release.
At the end of this entire process, I was left with a large number of files that went unclaimed. I contacted the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers for advice on what to do with them and was told I should keep them for seven years after the last action on the case. So here they sit.
Inheriting a law practice yielded no king’s ransom. Still, I was happy to do it. I was able to help a friend complete his obligations to his clients and give him one less thing to worry about at the end of his life. The process also made me contemplate what would happen to my own clients if my practice had to close quickly for whatever reason. Did I have a plan in place? As sole practitioners, we tend to focus on building a practice with little thought of what would happen should we no longer be able to operate it ourselves. The time to start planning is now.