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How can I trace a former client?


ISBA invites new lawyers to send us "which way to the courthouse" questions like the one below (go to to find out how). We'll seek answers to selected queries by, among other means, sending them anonymously to ISBA electronic discussiongroup members. Then we'll publish the results in the Journal, and maybe other places.

Q. My client and 1 reached a settlement in a personal injury suit. The insurance company made the check out to me and the client but sent it to the client. My client contested my fees and refused to give me the check. We went to court, and I won--but the judge ordered me to sign the check over to the client, and rendered judgment against her for the amount of the fees. She has since married and moved away. What can 1 do to trace her whereabouts?

JEFFREY LISS, CHICAGO. If you opt not to use a professional search service, you obviously start with Google. Especially if you know her married name.

You might try some of the online telephone directories--e.g., her name(s). No state or local address is required, but you can get a lot of hits. Pray that the names, original and married, are not "Smith."

If the client was a professional, perhaps a list of members of her trade association would help.

If the transaction is not too old, the lawyer can ask the insurance company for a copy of the check, which would show the bank in which she deposited the funds. Perhaps the insurer will cooperate; after all, the lawyer also was one of the endorsers.

STEPHEN L. HOFFMAN, CHICAGO. I once had a gentleman who would not respond to mail, telephone calls, or any other form of contact for several months at a time. I had to hire a skip tracer on a fairly routine basis to "find" this client. Once found, he would often drop back off the radar. Ultimately he would call me out of nowhere right about the time either the case was ready to settle or some other key event required his involvement. It is just the nature of the game and rather than ask my clients how in the world they could disappear or why they were seemingly running away from someone, I take it all as part of the nature of the business.

Clients have been known to change their minds or be unclear on the agreement. I would advise the lawyer here to contact the insurance carrier, ask them to stop payment on the check based upon the dispute, and ask them to send either separate checks or a new check to the lawyer. If the case is in lawsuit, it might be advisable to bring a motion asking for the court's direction to disperse proceeds in accordance with the settlement as documented by the signed release.

If the client is not locatable, hire a skip tracer, private investigator, or some other service that can locate a person with just a bit of personal information. I have even had clients who changed their names and their sex (surgically) and I was able to locate them rather easily by hiring an investigator.

MARK C. PALMER, CHAMPAIGN. Since you have a judgment on the client, it is worth a few dollars to record a memorandum of judgment in the county in which the client may own real property. Also, Web sites such as (by LexisNexis) and may be helpful. There is even a people finder on Other more creative measures may be taken, such as mailing a letter to the client's former address with "DO NOT FORWARD. ADDRESS CORRECTION REQUESTED" on the envelope. You may receive the letter back to your return address with a sticker showing the forwarding address your client filed with the U.S. Postal Service. A lot of states have free online marriage license lookups too. Also, If you happen to get a recent e-mail for the client without an address, use a free online e-mail tracer (e.g. to approximate the vicinity of the IP address and hire a PI to go from there.

CHRISTOPHER J. MCGEEHAN, CHICAGO. In addition to using a PI, some attorneys provide background checks of potential employees or business partners for clients. The data providers like to work with attorneys since these databases are heavily regulated by privacy laws.

Also, the attorney should have appealed the judge's order rather than giving the check to the client. The attorney had an attorney's lien in the settlement. In this case, the judge eliminated this secured lien and exchanged it for an unsecured judgment, which is a terrible trade off, especially where the client is hostile to the attorney.

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Title Annotation:Illinois
Publication:Illinois Bar Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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