Yours, Mine, and Ours: Law Firm Property Disputes
Richmond, Douglas R.
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Lateral movement by lawyers at all levels is now common. Ours is an age of lawyer mobility. It is also an age of client transience. Clients routinely change law firms, sometimes because they move with lateral lawyers, and sometimes for their own reasons. Understandably, lawyer and client mobility have spawned difficult questions about law firm property rights. For competitive reasons, law firms do not want departing lawyers taking the firm's intellectual capital or property with them when they move laterally. Client files are a treasure trove of intellectual capital and property that firms may wish to protect when clients shift their allegiance. Departing lawyers and clients have their own interests to advance and clearly believe that they have property rights in materials they created or for which they paid. Regardless of one's perspective, these are critical issues in today's professional environment. This article examines law firms' property rights and the competing rights of clients and individual lawyers in several critical aspects. In doing so, it discusses the application of trade secret law, fiduciary duty theory, and professional conduct rules in ways that are equally meaningful to courts, practicing lawyers, and scholars. Because the issues discussed in the article are important and, yet, surprisingly, there is relatively little authority squarely addressing them, this article fills a significant scholarly and practical void.