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File Management: Organize & Prioritize Your Records

File Management

Many people joke about professionals with messy desks and piles of papers. It can even be seen on social media through memes and graphic images illustrating how individuals with messy desks are often creative and well balanced. An attorney’s office with these file management habits, however, is no laughing matter. With client information and confidential details, one paper lost in the shuffle can drastically affect the outcome of a case.

The Importance of Proper File Management:

Organization is the cornerstone to success. Not only does it help operations run smoothly at your firm and aid in customer service, but staying organized is also an ethical and legal requirement as an attorney. The ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct discusses the need for lawyers to safeguard client property while maintaining their own records and copies.

This applies to an active client/lawyer relationship as well as a relationships that have been terminated: Rule 1.16(d) says that “upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to…protect a client’s interests, such as…surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance payment of fee or expense that has not been earned or incurred.” They note that you may retain some papers to the extent of the law, but you may face consequences for the loss or destruction of client papers, materials or property.

Files You Need to Keep:

While there is no comprehensive list of the files you’re required to keep, a general rule of thumb includes:

  • Records of account funds and other property — like original papers
  • A copy of the statement of client rights, signed by you and your client
  • Trust account records about the funds or property of a client

It is also advised to hold on to papers from cases regarding:

  • Minors
  • Guardianships
  • Bonded Attorney Performance
  • Insolvency
  • Bankruptcy
  • Probate
  • Trust accounts
  • Criminal Law

The ABA has noted that “a client is not entitled to papers and property that the lawyer generated for the lawyer’s own purpose in working on the client’s matter.” However, if the client is terminated before the matter is resolved, you may need to turn over some of these files to the client.

Electronic Files:

Electronic files, such as emails, documents, and even voicemails, often have several backup copies. Just deleting one copy doesn’t mean you’ve gotten rid of everything. Ideally, look into a cleaning software program that permanently erases hard drive data by an overwriting process. This can prevent certain sensitive data from ever being recovered. Appointing a tech-savvy staff member to organize your electronic records is another great practice for file management.

How to Dispose of Files:

The best bet before destroying anything is to first contact the client. Verify what the client’s preference as to what should be done with dated files. Do NOT destroy anything before you get the proper approval. For large quantities of disposable files, services are available to shred them for you in bulk. This may spare you the stress of having to personally shred them which can prove to be tedious and time-consuming. One would hope this goes without saying, but NEVER throw any office papers with personal or professional information directly in the trash. Files left intact and thrown out haphazardly open the floodgates for a number of security breaches.

Now that we are officially in the 2017 New Year, there’s no better time than the present to stay on top of the crucial aspects of managing your firm such as file management. One way to do this is by subscribing to my weekly RSS feed. Receive bi-weekly notifications containing helpful tips and insights on how to become the enchanting firm you’ve always strived to be!

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