What Happens to Your File When You Change Attorneys?

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If you are thinking about switching attorneys, one question that you're likely to ask yourself is, "What happens to the files that my existing attorney is holding for me?" Particularly if you're switching attorneys in the middle of a case or other legal issues, you want your new attorney to have access to these documents, since you've paid money for the existing work done by your former attorney.

Returning the Files

Upon request, an attorney is required to promptly hand over your files. You can ask him to send the files directly to you or your new attorney, or you can pick them up. In general, your attorney cannot charge you a fee for copying the documents in your file (in order to create a duplicate set that he retains), though you may have to pay shipping expenses. In addition, the attorney cannot hold files hostage because you owe him money. If the attorney fails to turn over your documents in a timely manner, you can file a complaint with the local bar association or state disciplinary committee.

Work Product

As a client, you're absolutely entitled to factual work product, such as deposition testimony, correspondence, and court filings. However, laws vary from state-to-state as to whether clients are entitled to more opinion-oriented documents (such as attorney notes and legal theories) within their files. Some states, such as California, have ruled that the client is not entitled to "absolute work product." These would include documents that reflect the attorney's impressions, opinions and legal theories, as well as legal research. Other jurisdictions, such as Washington, D.C., say that the client must receive the entire file, including attorney notes, opinions and strategy information. Even if your state doesn't require your attorney to provide you with copies of the absolute work product, you can still request that your attorney provide it to you. The attorney doesn't have to honor that request, but if your parting is amicable, there's a chance that he will give you the requested materials.

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