Lawyers Journal

Even in a mostly digital office, questions on what to do with all those paper files

Denise Guérin, the 2006-07 section council chair for Law Practice Management, is a solo practitioner in Cambridge concentrating on residential and commercial real estate transactions and all matters involving small businesses.

Q: Our firm has recently made a commitment to become less dependent on paper and hard copy of files. We are scanning almost everything that comes across our desks (we have six attorneys) and are trying to curb our dependency on manila folders and expandable cardboard files. However, since the paper files still exist, I am interested in keeping them as organized and as minimized as possible, going forward. Any advice?

A: Many attorneys (and I am definitely in that number) have a serious case of "Pack Rat Syndrome." We just know that if we don't hold onto a particular piece of paper, it will be the one that we need most desperately next week, or next month, or next year. Hence, the exponential growth of our files, boxes and storage costs!

At its most basic level, starting to manage your records requires only three things of you and your firm:
1. Agree upon a formal (written) records management policy.
2. Create a retention schedule.
3. Produce some rules and guidelines by which the policy and schedule will be maintained and enforced.

Factors in creating a records management policy

• Decide if your policy will initially govern only hard copy records, or both hard copy and electronic records. It might be easier to start out with a less ambitious agenda.
• Delineate policies and procedures for both active and inactive records.
• Don't overlook (or minimize) the need to manage non-client records, such as time/billing records, HR files and so forth.
• Pay strict attention to compliance, at every step, with the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct.
• Impose packing, packaging and labeling conventions.
• Include specific procedures for disposition, destruction, imposing "holds," client notifications and obtaining approvals for all of the foregoing.
• Require strict documentation of key steps and procedures in order to create a solid and audit-proof chain of control.

Constructing the schedules

• Classify your records. For example, billing information should be separate from HR files, which should be separate from banking records, all of which must be separate from client files.
• Understand that optimal retention schedules will vary for different classes of records.
• Primary factors in determining retention periods will be file-specific legal requirements, legal/ethical considerations and business need.

Client notification

• Draft a Client Notification Letter, advising the client that, in accordance with the firm's records management policy, the following files are due to be destroyed, or returned to the client upon written request.
• Give the client a generous but firm and specific deadline by which to respond to you (in a self-addressed, stamped envelope) if the client wishes to have records returned rather than destroyed.
• Reference the existence of your records management policy in your fee agreements and engagement letters. Consider attaching a blank template of your Client Notification Letter to the fee agreement, for example.

For more information on this topic, refer to the excellent book The Lawyer's Guide to Records Management and Retention, Cunningham and Montana, from ABA Publishers. Or visit these Web sites:
• www.prismintl.org (PRISM - Professional Information and Records Services Management)
• www.arma.org (ARMA Intl. - Records Managers Professional Organization)
• www.aiim.org (AIIM - The Association for Information and Image Management)

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