By Ali McNally, LAW WEEK COLORADO
DENVER—Where do your files go when you die?
They could end up among thousands of files in the basement of the Colorado Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation. There, a handful of staff members sift through files of deceased or disabled attorneys for original documents, such as wills and deeds, and give them back to clients or send them away to be destroyed. Also known as inventory counsel cases, they’ve tripled in Colorado in the last 10 years, according to statistics from attorney regulation. Because most of the cases stem from death or disability, that number will continue to climb along with the number of attorneys in the state at or nearing retirement age, said Colorado Attorney Regulation Counsel John Gleason.
The bulk of attorney regulation’s inventory counsel cases are made up of attorneys who practiced on their own who didn’t have succession plans for their files, Gleason said. While large and mid-sized law firms have manpower and protocols for purging files, sole practitioners don’t. Loved ones, many of whom aren’t legal professionals, are often left with the burden.
“The only people left are partners or family members who know nothing about what to do with thousands of files,” Gleason said.
An inventory counsel case can take anywhere from a month to more than a year for attorney regulation to complete, said Nate Riley attorney regulation’s assistant investigator who’s handled most of the office’s inventory counsel cases. Court dates are changed, funds are managed and open cases are given to other attorneys. But that’s not including the “boxes and boxes and boxes” of files for original documents. Clients are often the last to know.
The trend concerns Gleason, who anticipates inventory counsel cases to continue to climb as the bar population gets older. Roughly half of attorneys in Colorado are baby boomers, or those born between 1946 and 1964, according to recent demographic information from attorney registration. Many of those attorneys work for themselves and continue to work well into their golden years. The concern is widespread but rarely discussed, Gleason said. A 2007 report from the National Organization of Bar Counsel also recognized concerns over “the sudden incapacity or death of a lawyer who has not made adequate preparation for the continued representation or protection of clients.” That concern hasn’t changed, said the organization’s president Sara Rittman.
“When you have this percentage of aging lawyers, the risk of catastrophe is very real,” Gleason said. “They’ve been practicing since they were 30. They’re now 70 and they have thousands and thousands of files.”
Editor’s note: This article is a snippet from the March 5 print edition of Law Week Colorado.