Ask and You May Receive: The Obligation to Deliver a Client’s File in a Specific Format

A recent opinion from the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics finds that where a former client requests documents regarding his case, a lawyer must take reasonable measures to deliver the documents in a form in which the client can access them; however, the lawyer may charge the reasonable fees and expenses incurred in delivering the documents in the form requested.

The inquiry arose from a lawyer who keeps client files in their electronic form on a secure, password-protected cloud storage site. When a client requests a copy of his file, the firm provides him with a link and password for the site. One (now incarcerated) former client requested that the firm send a printed copy of his file, which the inquirer said would be expensive to print and deliver.

A lawyer’s obligation to deliver the client the client file upon request derives from rule 1.15(c)(4) of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, which states that a lawyer must “promptly…deliver to the client…as requested by the client… the funds, securities or other properties in the possession of the lawyer that the client…is entitled to receive.” But, as noted by the Committee, “except where original documents have particular evidentiary or similar value, a lawyer is not required to maintain the client file in any particular form.”

Thus, the Committee concluded that where the client is unable to read electronic documents, “the lawyer should make reasonable efforts to transmit the file in a form in which the client can access the documents” and may charge the client the reasonable fees and expenses incurred in printing out and delivering a paper copy.

Read full opinion here.

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