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Jean de La Fontaine wrote, “In everything one must consider the end.” And so, a solo practitioner must also consider the end. He or she must decide when and how to move on from his or her solo law practice. There are many reasons a solo attorney would board up his practice. A law practice is a business, and as with any business, some just cannot make a go of it. Further, running a solo practice can be frustrating, challenging and has business obstacles that lawyers in larger firms do not have to endure. “Most solo practitioners love the practice of law, but there are so many aspects of running an office that it gets overwhelming,” said Alexandra Duran, a former attorney and founder of Career Transitioning, an organization that offers attorneys career coaching. A solo constantly has to seek out and maintain a network of other attorneys to survive, she noted. Indeed, to receive malpractice coverage for a solo practitioner, an applicant must provide the name and phone number of another attorney who will cover for the attorney in case of an emergency. Some attorneys are not cut out for these constant networking demands, she said. There are also the day-to-day administrative demands of running a law shop that cause many to leave, said Ronald J. Katter, co-chair of the New York County Lawyers’ Association Solo and Small Firm Practice section. “About on-half to one-fourth is practicing law,” he explained. “You are chief cook and bottle washer.” Some lawyers are also not comfortable with the administrative tasks, he continued. Add to this the rainmaking processes needed to survive and some lawyers just burn out, Katter, who practices mostly personal injury work, said. But not all solos leave because of discontent. Some areas of the law are not suited for solo work and the attorney is just waiting until a large practice hires him or her, he said. “For instance,” says Katter, “an appellate lawyer might just be idling until he gets picked up by another firm.” A common reason many solos leave is to retire. Interestingly, retirement is the only time the New York Disciplinary Rules allow for the sale of a law practice and its clients. However, it can be very difficult to sell a practice, said Eric B. Schultz, vice chair of the General Practice/Solo/Small Firm Practice section of the Nassau County Bar Association. “Clients are in essence consumers and there is a personal relationship between the lawyer and his client.” Moreover, since most solos lease office space and equipment, they do not have tangible assets to sell. So, when giving up a solo practice, it might not be as easy as just handing over the keys to the office. CLIENT IS PARAMOUNT Commentators agree that when disposing of a law firm, the paramount responsibility is the client. It is especially important that the client’s representation is not interrupted, said Katter. “Give your client enough time to find representation,” added Schultz. “Don’t just pull the rug out from underneath them.” As a first step, Schultz, a general practitioner specializing in landlord/tenant and condominium law, recommends a disengagement letter. The letter should include the specific facts of the case, why the attorney is terminating representation, the amount of any money owed and whether there is an attorney’s lien against the case. It is particularly important to alert the client in the disengagement letter about time-sensitive issues such as a statute of limitations, conference dates and other scheduled matters, Schultz adds. An attorney must also return any unearned fees. The general consensus is that recommending a replacement attorney is all right. Schultz further suggests working with the new counsel to bring them up to speed and assure that the client is properly represented. Counsel must be careful, however, said Howard Benjamin, a Manhattan attorney who specializes in legal ethics and attorney discipline defense. When steering a client to a particular lawyer, it is important to let the client know he or she can choose any attorney he or she wants, and that the choice is his or her sole providence. Benjamin, of Benjamin, Brotman & Maltz in New York, recommends providing this information in writing, to shield the original attorney if there are performance issues with the replacement counsel. If litigation is pending, the attorney must execute a substitution of counsel, Benjamin explained. MONEY MATTERS Matters can get sticky when money is owed by the client. If money is owed the lawyer, he is entitled to be paid for the work he has performed, Benjamin said. A charging lien may be entered when the original lawyer turns the file over to the new lawyer. The charging lien could set an amount that would come out of the proceeds the client ultimately receives. The amount due the original lawyer may also be determined by a court at a hearing, noted Benjamin. If money is owed at the time the file is to be turned over and a client refuses in bad faith to pay the fees due, a lawyer in New York can withhold the case file and would have a retaining lien on the case, said Benjamin. If a court later determines that failure to turn over the file would cause irreparable harm, it could force the client to post a bond and demand the attorney turn over the file. The attorney would then have a charging lien secured by the client’s bond. When a case is turned over to a new lawyer, all the effort that the departing lawyer expended originally to get up to speed might be spent again by the new attorney. In essence, the new lawyer could burn up billable hours going over old ground. Benjamin suggests that, at least in non-contingency fee cases, the departing attorney make the client aware of the learning curve. Sometimes, a client becomes so attached to his counsel that he does not want to release him or her. Provided a withdrawal does not cause foreseeable harm to the client, an attorney can withdraw without the client’s consent. If the client does not consent to an attorney’s withdrawal in a pending case, the attorney must make a motion to withdraw from it, according to the New York Disciplinary Rules. However, “if the court rejects your motion, you’re not getting out,” Benjamin said. In that case, an attorney might end up practicing law a little longer than expected — or desired. Zachary L. Berman, an attorney and free-lance writer, was a summer intern.

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