What Happens If My Client Disappears?

There is a certain degree of risk that an attorney takes on when they represent any client. Though the client is placing a great deal of trust in the attorney, of course, the attorney is also trusting that the client will continue to comply with any given advice and instruction. An uncooperative client can torpedo his or her own case. Furthermore, attorneys who offer certain pay structures more forgiving to their clients, such as contingent payments that are based on a percentage of the settlement or award attained by the attorney, are trusting that their clients will follow through and do their part to ensure that the pay is earned. Lawyers do most of the work on any legal case, but clients do need to do their share. The most basic and fundamental thing they need to do is show up.

It’s never good when a client disappears. If a client is pursuing a personal injury claim, for example, this can be frustrating, but it’s ultimately better for the defendant and therefore probably won’t be protested legally. However, if the client is the defendant in any kind of case, civil or criminal, simply disappearing can result in serious consequences. These consequences can vary depending on the region, but in the state of Oklahoma, for example, those who fail to appear in court can be punished by up to two years in prison as well as $5,000 in fines. With that being said, what should you do if your client fails to appear and is difficult to contact?

How Do I Search For My Client? Should I Search?

Yes, you should search for your client if they disappear — to an extent. Your client is not your family, and it’s very likely that they are not your only client. Your life cannot be put on hold because of one client. Of course, if you’re worried that the client is at risk of harming themselves or others, or is at risk of being harmed by another individual, you should alert the proper authorities immediately. The safety of everyone involved is what is most important. But if your client is a defendant and disappeared, you may be looking at someone who is attempting to escape accountability. And you must make reasonable efforts to find them.

For an attorney, reasonable efforts would typically include looking at public records, like marriage or divorce records, motor vehicle records, and voting records to get an idea of where your client may have gone. This is all accessible information and could provide some clues. As the typical homeowner moves every five to seven years on average, you may be able to glean from these records places in which your client lived in the past, which they may be returning to. Of course, not everything that you use in your search needs to be so official. You may also want to examine social media. As surprising as it may seem, many people forget to stop posting on social media, even when they’re running away. In this same sense, talk to your client’s friends, relatives, and co-workers. While some may be tight-lipped, others could be willing to help you find your client, especially if you explain that this is ultimately for their own good. Finally, you should consider hiring a private investigator. Yes, this may seem excessive. But it is upon attorneys to expend reasonable efforts and funds to find their clients when they disappear, in order to ensure that all is legally handled as it should be. You don’t have to pay the private investigator to search for a year, but if you’re unable to find the information that you need, they’re worth consulting with.

Do I Need To Look After My Client’s Interests?

To a certain degree, yes, it is up to the attorney to look after their clients’ interests if they disappear. You’re basically trying to reduce the amount of prejudice that could be held against your client in court after they disappear. After all, there is no guarantee that your client intentionally left, and they may return after a delay. The extent to which you represent your client’s interests, however, vary depending on where you are and what kind of permissions your client gave you. If your client directed you or gave you permission to file a lawsuit on their behalf, you may be able to do so if needed. However, if there is a degree of murkiness surrounding the clients’ desires and intents, you would not. What you can’t do is settle a case without your client’s presence, barring extremely unique circumstances. You certainly cannot pay yourself without the client’s approval. Although certainly some lawyers have been tempted to try this in the past, with about 50% of all American households living paycheck to paycheck, this is not legal even if somehow the case is settled while the client is gone. With that being said, even if the client gave you permission to settle a lawsuit on their behalf, they are still required to sign the release, so the case would not be fully settled without them.

After everything is said and done and the client has been gone for an amount of time beyond reasonable, and after you have exerted efforts to attempt to find them, you can move forward in withdrawing representation. Usually, a client would be given notice of the withdrawal, but obviously, this is not something that you would necessarily be able to do under such circumstances.

When a client disappears, it can be frustrating and concerning. But fortunately, there are clear guidelines in each jurisdiction recommending what you can do, and what you’re supposed to do. Keep that in mind if this happens to you.

Comments 1

  1. Mike C says:

    My client disappeared, for years. 1 or 2 contacts without any participation. They promised to show up for Zoom depos – didn’t. Case was ready to settle with a nice check for client. Tomorrow is the deadline for them to show up and be deposed or face sanctions. They are elderly couple from a foreign country. I suspected they disappeared to avoid paying invoices, but I have told them (emails and voicemails) that we will deal with anything like that later and participation is urgent. In the last short phone call (Mid August of 2022 or so), I proposed a range where I thought we could settle and he seemed he would go along with the amount. He promised to talk on the phone with me that night with his wife on the phone. Of course I have no response since that. Now, I am afraid I have to decide between settling the case without the client (somehow), or having the case dismissed with nothing for them.

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