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What to Do When Your Personal Injury Lawyer Dies, Retires, or Disappears

by | Feb 24, 2021

Contacting a personal injury lawyer after you’ve been hurt in an accident is one of the smartest choices you can make. Representation by a lawyer greatly increases your chances of recovering the full compensation you deserve and of achieving a favorable resolution to your case.

But what happens if your personal injury lawyer dies, retires, or disappears? Unfortunately, personal injury lawyers are like anyone else: They get old. They retire. And, yes, they even die unexpectedly.

Retirement is usually planned, so it rarely surprises clients or the lawyers. An unexpected death or disability, on the other hand, are by definition unforeseen, and neither the client nor lawyer are prepared for them.

A lawyer becoming disabled or dying happens more than people might think. Therefore, it’s good to know what to do if you end up in this situation so that you aren’t left in the lurch with a ton of unanswered questions about the status of your injury case.

Pro Tip: The information here also applies if a lawyer is suspended or disbarred for unethical behavior or if you are unhappy with your lawyer. Unfortunately, disciplinary action happens to hundreds of lawyers every year in Florida alone. If your lawyer is rude, your case is taking way too long, or you never get updates, you are not required to continue to be represented by that lawyer.

To help you prepare for such a circumstance, let’s look at what to expect and what you can do if your personal injury lawyer suddenly dies, retires, or disappears.

What Happens When a Lawyer Dies?

On the law firm’s end, a number of events are set into motion if a lawyer dies or becomes disabled. Common courses of action include:

  • an outside attorney may step in to help wind down the practice,
  • another attorney from the same firm may take over the cases, or
  • the executor of the lawyer’s estate may sell the firm to another attorney.

Florida Bar Rule 1-3.8: Inventory Attorneys

One potential outcome of your attorney’s death or disability is the closing down of the firm. However, there are regulations in place that prohibit a firm from simply shutting its doors and leaving clients in limbo.

As of 2006, every attorney in Florida is required to designate an “Inventory Attorney.” This person takes possession of the files of an attorney who dies, disappears, is disbarred or suspended, or suffers involuntary leave of absence. They assist in winding up the business of the law firm.

The inventory attorney is required to notify you that your attorney is no longer capable of representing you, at which point you have the right to look for alternate representation, request a referral from the inventory attorney, or ask for copies of your files.

Inventory attorneys, however, are meant as stopgaps to ensure client’s rights are protected while the deceased attorney’s affairs are brought to a close, and it is unlikely that they will take over representation of the clients.

Pro Tip: Regardless, you are not at the mercy of fate here; by law, no one can substitute as your lawyer unless you agree to the substitution. You must be sent written notice of any potential change to your lawyer and given the opportunity to look for different counsel or accept the substitution.

Sale of Your Attorney’s Practice

The sale of the law practice is another potential course of action when a personal injury lawyer dies or is no longer capable of practicing. The Florida Bar has strict rules governing the sale of a law practice to ensure your information is kept confidential.

From a client’s perspective, there are few notable aspects to the sale of a law firm:

  • The sale also requires written notification to every client of the proposed sale and the pending substitution of counsel.
  • Clients have 30 days to agree to or object to the substitution of counsel.
  • If the case is in litigation, court authorization is required to substitute counsel.
  • If clients agree to the substitution of counsel, the acquiring law firm is required to abide by any existing fee agreements.
  • If clients do not agree to the substitution, they have the right to search for a new personal injury lawyer, to whom their files can be transferred.

Pro Tip: Even if another lawyer at the firm is taking over in the interim, you are not required to agree to them taking over permanently. Especially in the personal injury arena, people should only work with lawyers they know, like, and trust. You may not have a relationship with other lawyers at the firm, and you are under no obligation to work with them.

What If A Lawyer Disappears?

Another situation that might prompt you to rethink your choice in lawyer is unresponsiveness or radio silence—in other words, your lawyer disappears. While you shouldn’t expect to hear from your personal injury lawyer every week, you should receive periodic updates on your case. And if you reach out to them, you should get timely responses.

Lack of communication is consistently one of the most cited criticisms of lawyers. At best it’s frustrating, at worst it can ruin your chance at receiving compensation if critical deadlines are missed.

How Can You Avoid a Bad Situation?

The unexpected loss of your personal injury lawyer may be disappointing, but it doesn’t need to be distressing. We recommend taking a few simple steps to prevent a potential death, disability, or retirement from causing confusion or hurting your case.

  1. Carefully Screen Lawyers: Before hiring a personal injury lawyer, carefully review their digital presence, educational information, and client testimonials, all of which speak to their overall qualifications. Don’t be drawn in by flashy billboards and big numbers. When you hire one of the mass-advertising, high-volume law firms, you will likely get passed off to a case manager or someone else. Worse still, these settlement mills often care more about “padding their stats” than their client’s wellbeing. They accept lower settlement offers to ensure a positive outcome that they can use in their ads.
  2. Maintain a Relationship with Your Lawyer: Without up-to-date contact information, the inventory attorney or other parties will be unable to contact you in the event your lawyer dies, becomes disabled, or is disbarred. So be sure to stay in touch with your personal injury lawyer and update them of changes to your contact information.
  3. Educate Yourself: An “informed consumer” makes better choices. If you have a basic understanding of your case, you can anticipate areas of concern. You should familiarize yourself with key terminology (e.g. plaintiff, defendant, deposition, negligence), the general course of your particular case, and the relative statutes of limitations. (Information of this sort should be readily available on your lawyer’s website, see point 1).

We’re Here When You Need Us Most

Having your personal injury lawyer retire, die, or disappear can be aggravating. If this has happened to you, remember that you have the right to choose your new legal advisor. You are not obligated to work with a law firm that buys your attorney’s firm or with other attorneys within that firm.

Call us today or contact us online to schedule a free new client consultation. If you need to switch lawyers, we can handle the formalities and ensure your personal injury case stays on track.

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