What belongs to you in your lawyer's file?

Your file at your attorney's office probably contains many types of documents, including correspondence, court pleadings, notes, and papers (some of which you may have directly provided).

A recent American Bar Association ethics opinion spoke on the topic of who owns what in your file. (See ABA Committee on Professional Ethics & Professional Responsibility Formal Opinion 471 (2015) - PDF will open in new window).

That decision provides that the client is entitled to (and therefore the lawyer must surrender) the following contents of the file:

  • any materials provided by the client to the attorney;
  • legal documents filed with the court (or those that are completed by not yet filed);
  • other signed legal documents, such as contracts;
  • orders or other records which can be found at the courthouse; and
  • correspondence regarding the representation, including letters and email.

The opinion states that some parts of the file are NOT the client's, such as papers and property that the lawyer generated for his/her own purpose while working for the client. This may include drafts of legal documents, internal memos and research, conflict checks, personal notes, or documents that might reveal the confidential information of other clients.

The ABA opinion provides guidance on a nationwide basis, but you should discuss any specific issues or concerns you have about your file in the county & state where your divorce or family court case is.