It’s a situation that does not happen very often, but when it does it can affect a lot of people. You have an ongoing divorce or legal separation (or any legal case for that matter) case and after not hearing from your attorney you make a call to his/her office (of course, depending on the circumstances, you may get a call or letter from his/her office first). You then learn that your attorney has passed away, or has become so ill that he/she can no longer represent you. What should you do? While keeping in mind that every situation is different, here are some of my thoughts on what a client may want to do.
To a great extent what happens right after the sudden loss of your lawyer may depend on two things: 1) what size firm did your lawyer have and 2) at what stage is your case at. If your lawyer was part of a firm with more than just him/herself, there is a possibility that another lawyer could take over the case. In some firms it is common practice for several attorney to be, at least, aware of the substantive and procedural elements of each case, so that each of them can cover for the other (generally this is done to address things like vacations and hearing/trial conflicts, but would apply to any inability to continue to represent you). This would be a “best case” scenario – a new lawyer, already familiar with your case, steps in to take over the case (keeping in mind that you always have a right to look else where should you decide to do so). A more likely scenario involves the attorney being a solo practitioner and no one else is familiar with the case. In this situation you will have to find a new lawyer as soon as possible and get your file transferred to the new office. If someone is “unwinding” the practice, they may have several recommendations on who to contact. Getting a new lawyer involved is very important in an active case because of the need to keep up on the various actions and document filings in the case. This would be a good time to mention an important consideration – make sure you have your lawyer provide you with a copy of all documents he/she generates/files/mails on your behalf (as far as I am concerned you should have a copy of every document (except, make notes by the lawyer) in your file (while the file does belong to you, having your own copies will can be very useful).
Hopefully, with a new lawyer on board, there will be no need to make any major changes to the procedural aspects of the case, but depending on any schedule hearings or trial, they may have to be continued out to a future date.
Does the lawyer still have funds in his/her trust account that belong to you? If so, there will be a need to either have them transferred to the new lawyer, or have the (current) firm cut you a check. Getting a refund may be a problem if the only one lawyer could sign the checks. If this issue can not get resolved by the person “unwinding” the practice, you should contact the Washington State Bar Association – they oversee lawyer trust accounts and will make sure the funds are properly distributed.
Lastly, if after your attempts to contact your lawyer result in no return contact, give the Washington State Bar Association a call. They are prepared to deal with the unexpected problems that come up during the time a lawyer is licensed to practice in the state of Washington and are mandated to protect you, the client, as best as possible.
This blog article is not intended to convey legal advice, but only address some of the general rules. Most legal issues, in family law cases, depend on the specific facts. Should you wish to discuss your particular situation with the Law Office of Thomas A. Chillquist, please call or email my office. I am a family law lawyer (divorce attorney) and I represent parties in family law, and divorce, matters in King and Pierce County, Washington, including Kent, Federal Way, Covington, Renton, SeaTac, Des Moines, Fife, Auburn, Seattle, Bellevue, Puyallup, Orting, Tacoma and Mercer Island.