At bar's urging, judge assumes control of murdered lawyer's files

Staff Writer

At the urging of the State Bar, a San Francisco Superior Court judge recently took protective measures to assist both the estate and the clients of criminal defense attorney Dennis B. Natali, who was fatally shot in November.

Assuming jurisdiction over Natali's law practice, Judge Laurence D. Kay appointed four volunteers to review Natali's records and files to ensure that no client matter is left unattended.

The four attorneys will carry out a list of court-specified duties, such as notifying Natali's clients, arranging for the return of files and client property, applying for necessary time extensions and helping the clients find new lawyers.

The bar asked the court to assume jurisdiction over Natli's practice under Business & Professions Code §6180, which permits a court to take over the practice of an attorney who has died, resigned or been disbarred, suspended or enrolled as an inactive member of the bar. The statute is designed to protect the rights and interests of the attorney's clients. The State Bar takes such action about 80 times per year.

"In light of Mr. Natali's untimely death, we had to move quickly to make sure that his clients do not suffer any adverse consequences," said Judy Johnson, the bar's chief trial counsel.

Johnson urged all attorneys to make arrangements for the future management of their own practices and to consider such arrangements just as important as preparing a will.

"Judge Kay's action should prompt all lawyers in private practice to consider making arrangements for the winding down of their practice in the event of untimely death or disability," Johnson said. "Setting up such a plan will preserve the value of a lawyer's practice for the benefit of surviving family members and afford some protection and consideration for clients."

Johnson suggested that attorneys designate a partner, another lawyer who maintains a similar type of practice, and make detailed written provisions ensuring that the partner will, if necessary, handle the disposition of his or her client matters.

With the help of its Probate & Estate Law Section, the bar is considering statutory changes to the probate code which would allow an attorney to appoint another lawyer to both preserve the value of the practice and to handle the distribution of client matters following the first attorney's death.

Also under consideration is the idea of paying the "practice administrator" an hourly fee from the deceased attorney's law practice or other assets of his estate.

"We think this goes a long way in terms of protecting the client and his interests," said Tracy Genesen, special assistant to the chief trial counsel. "You don't run into a crisis management situation because everything is laid out in a testamentary document. There will be a set of guidelines to be followed by the person named."

The individual appointed to wind down a deceased attorney's practice cannot be retained by any of the clients, due to a possible conflict of interest.