What happens to the legal records of clients when an attorney retires or closes their practice? Is there a way to gain access to those records?

What happens to the legal records of clients when an attorney retires or closes their practice? Is there a way to gain access to those records?

— Harold C., via e-mail

There's a variety of ways to handle old legal files, Harold, but like so many things in the law, there isn't always a simple answer.

"Different firms have different policies for how they keep records," says Kateri Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Oregon State Bar.

Walsh walked us through some of the possibilities. She said there's a general effort to keep files for 10 years, and the actual arrangements often depend on the individual attorney's situation.

If a lawyer retires who's a member of a firm, for example, his or her clients' files generally will be kept by the firm for 10 years. A sole practitioner, on the other hand, might ask a colleague or a firm to take over the files.

Walsh says files for particularly interesting or complex cases may be kept for a longer time. Lawyers who are retiring or leaving the law generally advise the Oregon State Bar where their files will be stored. Clients of attorneys who are no longer practicing can call the Bar's professional liability fund, 503-639-6911, if they're having problems tracking down their files.

Now, as to your inquiry about gaining access to legal records, remember that legal files are private documents protected by attorney/client privilege. You can't look at somebody else's legal files. You could conceivably look at documents that have become part of the official court records for a case that goes to trial, however.

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