The Risk Manager, Fall 1997

By Beverly Michaelis, Practice Management Advisor, Oregon Professional Liability Fund.
Reprinted with permission.

The odds are that sometime during the course of your career you will be unable to locate one of your clients. Often, this happens at a crucial point during representation, such as on the eve of trial or when a statute is about to run. Here are some suggestions for minimizing the risk of being unable to locate your clients:

Look for red flags. Clients who move frequently, change jobs often or have no friends or family in the community are likely to fall out of touch. Proceed with caution.

Listen to your intuition. If your gut sends out a warning flare, turn the case down. Don't be swayed by pressure from a friend, the amount of fees involved or the promise of a quick resolution. Such cases are rarely worth the trouble and often result in malpractice claims which could have been avoided.

Use client intake forms which prompt you to get names, addresses, telephone numbers, and relationships of at least two people who will always know where your client can be reached. Get additional names, addresses and telephone numbers if the situation warrants. Social Security numbers, drivers license numbers and dates of birth can be helpful in tracking your client later, if need be.

Stress to clients the importance of keeping in touch with your office at all times. Some law offices add language to their fee agreement or engagement letters giving the responsible attorney the right to withdraw if the client fails to cooperate in the client's case. This can include requiring the client to keep a current address and telephone number on file with the lawyer's office at all times.

If a client becomes unresponsive or difficult to reach, the situation is not likely to improve. Carefully document your efforts to communicate with the client and give strong consideration to withdrawing from representation when the problem first develops.

Take extra precautions with impaired clients. One solution may be to learn the names and numbers of the other professionals with whom your client has regular contact. Case workers, mental health workers and the like can be extremely helpful. Get your client's authorization to establish and maintain contact with these professionals.

Recognize that certain practice areas such as criminal law involve clients who are more likely to move without notifying you.

If you decide to withdraw from representation, read and comply with the applicable disciplinary and court rules.

If it's too late and your client has already disappeared, conduct as thorough a search as possible. Working from the information on your intake sheet, call the client's employer and emergency contacts. Visit your client's last known address and talk to the neighbors. Do a DMV search. Run a skip trace. Use the Internet. Apply the same level of diligence in searching for your client as you would in locating and serving the opposing party in your case.