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Supreme Judicial Court Rules

Rules of Professional Conduct

Supreme Judicial Court Rules Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.17: Sale of law practice

Effective Date: 07/01/2015
Updates: Adopted March 26, 2015, effective July 1, 2015


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Rule 1.17

A lawyer or law firm may sell, and a lawyer or law firm may purchase, with or without consideration, a law practice, including good will, if the following conditions are satisfied: 






The seller gives written notice to each of the seller’s clients regarding: 

(1) the proposed sale; 

(2) the client’s right to retain other counsel or to take possession of the file; and 

(3) the fact that the client’s consent to the transfer of that client’s representation will be presumed if the client does not take any action or does not otherwise object within ninety (90) days of receipt of the notice. If a client cannot be given notice, the representation of that client may be transferred to the purchaser only upon entry of an order so authorizing by a court having jurisdiction. The seller may disclose to the court in camera confidential information relating to the representation only to the extent necessary to obtain an order authorizing the transfer. 


 The fees charged clients shall not be increased by reason of the sale. The purchaser may, however, refuse to include a particular representation in the purchase unless the client consents to pay the purchaser fees at a rate not exceeding the fees charged by the purchaser for rendering substantially similar services prior to the initiation of the purchase negotiations. 


Upon the sale of a law practice, the seller shall make reasonable arrangements for the maintenance of property and records specified in Rule 1.15


[1] The practice of law is a profession, not merely a business. Clients are not commodities that can be purchased and sold at will. Pursuant to this Rule, when a lawyer or an entire firm ceases to practice and another lawyer or firm takes over the representation, the selling lawyer or firm may obtain compensation for the reasonable value of the practice as may withdrawing partners of law firms. See Rules 5.4 and 5.6

[2] Reserved 

[3] Reserved 

[4] Reserved 

[5] Reserved 

[6] Reserved 

Client Confidences, Consent and Notice 

[7] Negotiations between seller and prospective purchaser prior to disclosure of information relating to a specific representation of an identifiable client no more violate the confidentiality provisions of Rule 1.6 than do preliminary discussions concerning the possible association of another lawyer or mergers between firms, with respect to which client consent is not required. See Rule 1.6(b)(7). Providing the purchaser access to detailed confidential information relating to the representation, such as the client’s file, however, requires client consent. The Rule provides that before such information can be disclosed by the seller to the purchaser the client must be given actual written notice of the contemplated sale, including the identity of the purchaser, and must be told that the decision to consent or make other arrangements must be made within 90 days. If nothing is heard from the client within that time, consent to the sale is presumed. 

[8] A lawyer or law firm ceasing to practice cannot be required to remain in practice because some clients cannot be given actual notice of the proposed purchase. Since these clients cannot themselves consent to the purchase or direct any other disposition of their files, the Rule requires an order from a court having jurisdiction authorizing their transfer or other disposition. The Court can be expected to determine whether reasonable efforts to locate the client have been exhausted, and whether the absent client’s legitimate interests will be served by authorizing the transfer of the file so that the purchaser may continue the representation. If necessary to preserve client confidences, the lawyer shall request that the petition for a court order be considered in camera. 

[9] All the elements of client autonomy, including the client’s absolute right to discharge a lawyer and transfer the representation to another, survive the sale of the practice. 

Fee Arrangements Between Client and Purchaser 

[10] The sale may not be financed by increases in fees charged the clients of the practice. Existing agreements between the seller and the client as to fees and the scope of the work must be honored by the purchaser. The purchaser may, however, refuse to include a particular representation in the purchase unless the client consents to pay the purchaser fees at a rate not exceeding the fees charged by the purchaser for rendering substantially similar services prior to the initiation of the purchase negotiations. 

Other Applicable Ethical Standards 

[11] Lawyers participating in the sale of some or all of a law practice or a practice area are subject to the ethical standards applicable to involving another lawyer in the representation of a client. These include, for example, the seller’s obligation to exercise competence in identifying a purchaser qualified to assume the practice and the purchaser’s obligation to undertake the representation competently (see Rule 1.1); the obligation to avoid disqualifying conflicts, and to secure the client’s informed consent for those conflicts that can be agreed to (see Rule 1.7 regarding conflicts and Rule 1.0(f) for the definition of informed consent); and the obligation to protect confidential information relating to the representation (see Rules 1.6 and 1.9). 

[12] If approval of the substitution of the purchasing lawyer for the selling lawyer is required by the rules of any tribunal in which a matter is pending, such approval must be obtained before the matter can be included in the sale (see Rule 1.16). 

Applicability of the Rule 

[13] This Rule applies to the sale of a law practice of a deceased, disabled or disappeared lawyer. Thus, the seller may be represented by a non-lawyer representative not subject to these Rules. Since, however, no lawyer may participate in a sale of a law practice that does not conform to the requirements of this Rule, the representatives of the seller as well as the purchasing lawyer can be expected to see to it that they are met. 

[14] Admission to or retirement from a law firm, retirement plan and similar arrangements, and a sale of tangible assets of a law practice, do not constitute a sale or purchase governed by this Rule. 

[15] This Rule does not apply to the transfers of legal representation between lawyers when such transfers are unrelated to the sale of a practice. 

[16] This Rule does not require the seller to cease to engage in the practice of law in a geographical area. This is a matter for agreement between the parties to the transfer. 

[17] Under Rule 1.17, a lawyer may sell all or part of the practice. 

[18] A law practice may be transferred and acquired without the necessity of consideration, and the client’s consent referred to in Rule 1.17(c)(3) is only to the transfer of that client’s representation. 

[19] The Rule permits the estate or representative of a lawyer to make a transfer of the lawyer’s practice to one or more purchasers. 

[20] Paragraph (e) provides for the preservation of a lawyer’s client trust account records in the event of the sale of a law practice and is the counterpart to Rule 1.15(f)(4), which applies when the law practice is dissolved. Comment 13 to Rule 1.15 is also applicable to paragraph (e) of this Rule.



Updates: Adopted March 26, 2015, effective July 1, 2015


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