I Closed My Private Practice Twice. Here’s What I Learned.

Vol. 1 Issue 10

By

The Hon. Richard C. Goodwin spent 20 years in private practice in Maryland trying cases in both state and federal courts, and has 20 years of service as a federal administrative law judge with three agencies. He retired from the U.S. Army Reserves in 2002 as a Colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and was awarded the Legion of Merit and two Meritorious Service Medals.

Photo of the Hon. Richard C. GoodwinI closed my private practice twice for different reasons. In 1990 my reserve unit was deployed to Saudi Arabia and I needed to close my solo practice with an active trial schedule in a few short days. In 1996 I went on the bench and voluntarily closed my business in a few short weeks. My comments reflect what I learned.

Make a checklist

Make a checklist of things you need to do. You will add and delete items as they become relevant or irrelevant. The checklist will be your template for closing your practice and keeping on track. The checklist should include things you need to do, when they need to be done, how they need to be done and what coordination (and with whom) is necessary. The list should include contact information on the people you need to coordinate with, and when and how. You will probably be coordinating with family, colleagues or other professional contacts simultaneously.

Clients

The most important consideration is the needs of the client. Once you are committed to a course of action, let the client know what you are doing and why. Give your client the date you intend to close your practice. Be sure there is some certainty to the date because you will start losing clients as soon as they find out you may not be available. Sorry, but clients think lawyers are a fungible commodity.

Make arrangements for the client to pick up their file or deliver the file to your client or other attorney of the client's choosing. GET A RECEIPT. Members of your local bar and your professional colleagues are great resources to work with to be sure your client's legal needs are met.

Know the legal implications of referring your client to another attorney, e.g., if the other attorney gets sued for malpractice, do you get sued as well for making the referral?

Keep a copy of the file. You know from your lengthy legal career clients and other lawyers lose things you know they received.

Courts

Keep the judges in the courthouses where you regularly appear informed. If your plans are tentative (in my case my deployment plans were cancelled, then reinstated), let the judges know the status of your plans so the court can anticipate rescheduling your cases. Let the judge's secretarial/administrative staff know what is going on. In reality the judge's staff will be dealing with your scheduling issues, not the judge.

Have a meeting with the Clerk(s) of Court to let her/him know the status of your practice and any pending court matters. Your best friends in the courthouse can be the clerk you meet just as you come into the Clerk's Office and the secretary/administrative assistant for each judge. Do not forget the court reporters, transcribing services, process servers and other services you use. Once you know exactly when you are leaving, write a letter to each judge, especially the Chief Administrative Judge and Clerk of Court of every jurisdiction in which you appear, giving them the information and date of your departure and your contact information. (I hand delivered my letters where I could do so.)

File a "Withdrawal of Appearance" in every case in which your appearance is entered and consider giving a short statement about the reasons for your departure. Do NOT rely on the "other" attorney to take care of this. As long as your appearance is in the case, you are responsible. (Check your local ethics rules.) Do not forget to serve your client and put that in the Certificate of Service.

Do NOT forget to notify co-counsel and/or opposing counsel in each case of your departure. Put all the notifications in the same Certificate of Service and file it with the court.

Coordinate with court personal (judges, court clerks, et al) to insure any of your active cases have been transferred to another attorney and that attorney has entered their appearance OR the client is on notice they need to retain new counsel. Make sure any matters scheduled before a court have been continued and the court personnel are aware of your pending non-availability.

Insurance: Buy a 'Tail' to Your Malpractice Insurance

Talk with your malpractice carrier and bar counsel of your state bar to be sure you understand and implement any requirements of the malpractice insurer or the state bar.

My malpractice carrier recommended I purchase a "tail" to my malpractice insurance. It required a one-time payment and insured I was covered against any future malpractice claims.

Look at your health, property and other insurance plans and coordinate with your carriers to be sure any necessary coverage continues, if necessary.

Your Law Practice

The transfer of your practice is subject to the rules and ethical regulations of your state bar. The rules vary from state to state and probably change with regularity. When I went on the bench I was not allowed to sell my practice, so I ended up notifying my clients I was closing my practice and selling my furniture.

Escrow

Remember, this is NOT your money. Refund unused escrow funds to the client. Transfer other funds back to the entity that gave you the funds.

If at the end you have funds you cannot return, consider transferring the funds to your state's "Unclaimed Money" fund along with whatever information you have about the source of the funds. The name varies from state to state, so this may take some investigation. The Unclaimed Money fund will list the money, source and amount, which is easily accessible on the internet.

Check with your state bar to make sure there are no other requirements.

Clean Up

Accountant: Get your books in order. Coordinate with your accountant to determine if there is a particular date and/or manner in which you should close your practice. Determine how and where your books will be maintained.

Pay any and all outstanding bills and arrange for other bills to get paid – personal and professional.

Do not forget your banks – you should have put your general account in one bank and your escrow account in another. Talk to someone at each bank to ensure money is accessible and payments or receipts can be made. When you leave, send a letter to each bank setting forth the date of your departure and contact information.

Lawyer: Coordinate with your personal lawyer and any lawyer who has taken on the responsibility of assisting your client(s).

Files: Keep a copy of any file you transfer. Yes I know this is redundant, but it is also that important.

Then there is the client who has moved and you cannot find, or in some cases the guest of a government entity.

Consider how you should retain any files and important papers. Consider maintaining a current listing in both your state and county bar directories after you leave private practice. What, if any, papers and/or documents should you file with the clerk of court? Records filed with the court are generally easily found and available to the client.

Family: Update Your Will: Yes, I know, preaching to the choir. But having a current up to date will is important whatever the reason is you are leaving practice.

Update Your Power(s) of Attorney: Again, this is an opportune time to update any Powers of Attorney, Health Care Powers of attorney, et al. You may need to consider executing a limited power of attorney so someone can oversee your practice and/or write checks from your general and/or escrow accounts.

Again, check with your state bar.

When I deployed I was the non-custodial parent. The mother of my children needed paperwork to insure all of my children's healthcare needs were met during my deployment. Have you updated or initiated that paperwork? Talked to their doctors? Their schools? If your children are still young, visit the teacher for each child, then the principal. A teacher/principal cannot fix a problem they know nothing about. You will be amazed how caring teachers and principals are when one parent is deployed.

Update your list

Make a record of account numbers, contact numbers for court personnel, signature cards. Set out how to access any records you may have that have a password – checking with the state bar to ensure you meet ethical requirements. Where is your will, power of attorney, bank information located? How does someone access any secured, encrypted or password protected files?

Finally

Enjoy the next adventure in life!

Don't forget to turn out the lights!

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