Lawyers frequently come into possession of client property other than funds, such as photographs, documents and financial records.
What are the ethical rules for preserving and safeguarding this property?
The starting point is Rule of Professional Conduct 1.15 Safekeeping Property. This rule has three subparts: Rule 1.15-1 Definitions; Rule 1.15-2 General Rules; and Rule 1.15-3 Records and Accountings.
Beyond these ethics requirements, here are some risk management tips:
- Designate one person to be in charge of the client property receipting and storage process, along with an alternate.
- Put the policy in writing and include it in your office operating manual.
- Be alert for federal, state and local rules for maintaining client records, documents and financial information that might supersede the above ethics rulings. Some documents might have to be retained beyond six years.
- Maintain a secure, safe place in the office to store the property.
- Remember that the duty of confidentiality applies to this property as well. Keep photographs and evidence away from prying eyes.
- Prepare an inventory of property received by a client. Include a copy in the file. Keep a duplicate copy elsewhere.
- Have the client sign a receipt when property is returned. Confirm in a cover letter. Instruct the client to review the contents to make sure everything has been returned.
- Segregate inherently valuable items from other file contents.
- Be wary of destroying originals of instruments that are not recorded or filed elsewhere.
For more information about managing client property, check out the risk management handout “File Management: Retention and Destruction” available on our website.
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He doesn’t have a cat. Contact him at LinkedIn or email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 919-619-2441.