May a Law Firm Read a Departed Partner’s Emails?

When a partner leaves a law firm for another practice, what should happen to his or her email account at the original firm? Should, or must, the original firm continue to read and respond to the emails? Must it forward all or some of the emails to the former partner? Should it say how that person can now be reached? Or should it simply send an automated bounce-back message that the email account is now closed?

These questions were the subject of an official ethics ruling of the Philadelphia Bar Association last month. Here is a news report on it. (The official opinion leads off with a dispute about a continuing retainer that is IMHO less interesting to this readership, though perhaps of greater interest to the lawyers involved.)

(Results in brief: firm may – and probably must – read the incoming mails, but must forward anything of personal or professional interest to the departed lawyer.)

What would happen under Canadian rules (or would the result vary by province)?

Does it matter that the departing lawyer is a partner rather than an associate or employed lawyer? Presumably the employer’s rights would be greater if the lawyer were leaving an in-house counsel position, with no claim over the work product. Is that also the case for an associate in a law firm?

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