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Clients, not lawyers, own their legal matters, ABA asserts to New York high court


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Clients, not lawyers, own their legal matters, ABA asserts to New York high court

By John Glynn

CHICAGO, May 2, 2014 — In an amicus brief filed with the New York Court of Appeals, the American Bar Association asserts that because clients, not their lawyers, own their legal matters, dissolved law firms in bankruptcy proceedings should have no property interest in unfinished hourly rate client matters.

The brief, filed in In the Matter of: Coudert Brothers LLP, responds to questions that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit certified to New York’s highest court. The brief addresses whether, under New York law, a dissolved law firm can claim in bankruptcy proceedings that an hourly rate client matter is its property and that, therefore, it is entitled to profits earned by another firm on the client matter as its “unfinished business.”

The ABA brief, which supports neither party, requests that the court first consider whether, under New York law and the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, a client’s matter is at any time the property of a law firm. According to the ABA, which produces the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the answer is no.

“The answer to this precursor question requires consideration of both the fundamental principle that the client has the absolute right to choose, retain and discharge its counsel, and the strong New York policy against restrictions on client choice,” the brief states.

“The contention that an unfinished hourly rate client matter of a dissolved law firm is the property of the dissolved firm conflicts directly with the long-standing principle that the client has the right to control its relationship with its attorney,” the ABA asserts. When focused on the client’s rights in the matter, “a firm should have no property interest — whether the firm is dissolved or ongoing — in the profits resulting from an hourly fee matter after the client has moved that matter to a newly retained law firm or lawyer,” the brief states.

“Once the attorney-client relationship has ended on an hourly fee matter,” the ABA states, “the dissolved firm’s interest should be limited to the work it has already performed.” 

The ABA brief is available online here.

With nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. View our privacy statement online. Follow the latest ABA news at and on Twitter @ABANews.


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