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A lawyerly disengagement letter is a bit like a 'Dear John' letter.
Attorneys write them at the end of legal engagements, ideally with kindly advice and well wishes. When the relationship ends badly, however, the disengagement letter becomes more of a "CYA letter."
Here are some keys to making sure your disengagement letters protect your client's interests and your interests, too.
The first thing to write, after "Dear Client," should be to inform the client of any important deadlines. That includes statutes of limitations, hearing dates, and other related concerns.
But keep in mind the statute of limitations on malpractice claims -- one to four years depending on the cause of action -- because your insurance carrier certainly expects it.
"The disengagement letter provides powerful evidence of the date the attorney-client relationship terminated," says Lawyers Mutual. "If a legal malpractice claim is later filed, this evidence is important for purposes of establishing the date the statute of limitation began to run."
Attorneys often advise clients to document everything, but do not document the advice they give them. It happens all the time in long-term relationships, but also with short-term matters under pressure.
A disengagement letter should memorialize advice that may give rise to attorney liability. Be prepared to back up that advice with notes or other contemporaneous documents.
A final memo, which reviews the client's case with references to the client file, can help the client who needs a new attorney. It also protects against any claim that you abandoned the client.
Hopefully, most clients move on satisfied with your efforts. They can be a source of more business, and the disengagement letter can help.
It should include genuine best wishes and an invitation to return for future legal needs. If fees are owed, the letter should address them but not threaten the client.
Like the best "Dear John" letter, the disengagement letter will let the client know the engagement is off but a friendship may begin.
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