As reported in Politician’s Heirs Snare Thelen Reid in Complex Estate Battle, a New York firm successfully opposed a subpoena to turn over its files in connection with contested probate proceedings in Texas because the estate hadn’t paid its bills.  The basis of the New York firm’s retaining lien was described as follows in the linked-to piece:

In a Feb. 9 decision, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Carol Robinson Edmead said Thelen Reid was entitled to a retaining lien allowing it to keep documents relating to Martinez’s estate pending payment of outstanding legal bills. She quashed Gonzalez’s deposition subpoenas on the same grounds.

The judge noted that, while all the firm’s bills had been paid while Martinez was alive, Gonzalez had retained the firm after his death. Justice Edmead ruled that Gonzalez had retained Thelen Reid on behalf of Martinez’s estate, not in her individual capacity.

"Since the Law Firm’s rendition of services at the request of Ms. Gonzalez was made on behalf of the Estate of Dr. Martinez, such services entitle the Law Firm to a common-law retaining lien on any of the Estate’s books, papers, money and securities which are in the attorney’s possession," the judge wrote in In the Matter of the Application of Letizia Martinez de Gonzalez, 114877/06.

Florida Law: Ethics Opinion 88-11

Florida law also recognizes an attorney’s right to a retaining lien over client files when bills go unpaid.  Here’s how Florida Bar Ethics Opinion 88-11 summarized Florida law on this point:

Many attorneys are unaware that in Florida a case file is considered to be the property of the attorney rather than the client. Dowda and Fields, P.A. v. Cobb , 452 So.2d 1140, 1142 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984); Florida Ethics Opinion 71-37 [since withdrawn]. Under normal circumstances, an attorney should make available to the client, at the client’s expense, copies of information in the file where such information would serve a useful purpose to the client. Opinion 71-37 [since withdrawn].

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Florida common law recognizes two types of attorney’s liens: the charging lien and the retaining lien. The charging lien may be asserted when a client owes the attorney for fees or costs in connection with a specific matter in which a suit has been filed. To impose a charging lien, the attorney must show: (1) a contract between attorney and client; (2) an understanding for payment of attorney’s fees out of the recovery; (3) either an avoidance of payment or a dispute regarding the amount of fees; and (4) timely notice. Daniel Mones, P.A. v. Smith, 486 So.2d 559, 561 (Fla. 1986). The attorney should give timely notice of the asserted charging lien by either filing a notice of lien or otherwise pursuing the lien in the underlying suit. The latter approach is preferred.

Unlike a charging lien, a retaining lien may be asserted with respect to amounts owed by a client for all legal work done on the client’s behalf regardless of whether the materials upon which the retaining lien is asserted are related to the matter in which the outstanding charges were incurred. A retaining lien may be asserted on file materials as well as client funds or property in the attorney’s possession, and may be asserted whether or not a suit has been filed. Mones, 486 So.2d at 561.