Sometimes it seems like the news is full of stories about attorneys being investigated and even arrested for taking money that belongs to a client or someone else. You may have recently heard about an attorney that you know and even like whose office was visited by State Bar investigators while he was escorted to jail. So let’s just say for fun that you recently sat down in front of the TV or picked up the newspaper only to see a local attorney’s actions splashed on the news. You then learn that investigators from the State Bar of California descended into the attorney’s law office and removed the client files. What is going on? It’s not your trust attorney but should you still be worried?
Since when do State bar investigators don trench coats, sweep into lawyer’s offices and leave with their hands full? The answer is that in certain limited and exigent circumstances the State Bar can petition the local superior court to “assume jurisdiction” of a law practice. These are called colloquially “6180/6190 proceedings” because the authority and procedure to do this is set forth in Business and Professions Code sections 6180 – 6190. By verified application the Bar must include certain facts, that, “(a) ….. [T]he attorney has left an unfinished client matter for which no other [attorney] has, with the consent of the client, agreed to assume responsibility” or “(b) Belief that the interests of one or more clients of the attorney or of one or more other interested … entities will be prejudiced….”
A key component is that there is unfinished business of the client and the client hasn’t agreed to transfer responsibility. For instance, if a law office is about to close but a paralegal contacts all the clients who then come and take their files, then there is nothing left for the bar to request that the court oversee. However, usually there are clients left behind, so the verified application is filed in court and served on the subject attorney and the attorney is ordered to show cause why the court should not assume jurisdiction over the law practice. A hearing is shortly held and if the verified application is found true the court will then appoint some local attorneys, often culled from the local bar association, to carry out a variety of duties such as: examination of the files and records of the law practice and obtaining information as to any pending matters; notify probable clients of the 6180 proceeding and advise they seek new counsel; apply for extensions of time; file any notices, motions or other time sensitive documents (after obtaining client consent);give notice to the depositor; arrange for the appointment of a receiver; and do such other acts as the court may direct.
It should be noted that these volunteer attorneys are prohibited from accepting permanent employment from such a displaced client, at least not without first obtaining court permission. Also, these appointed attorneys are ordered to serve without compensation (unless the State Bar determines that an attorney devoted extraordinary time and services which were necessary to protect the client) although they may be reimbursed for expenses.