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Holding onto client files is the instinct for most in the legal profession. Though as a law office grows, that can mean extensive costs for maintaining records rooms or records storage off-site. How long to keep closed client files is one of the most common questions among attorneys, paralegals and office managers of law offices. Establishing records management best practices, such as selecting the best shredder for destroying legal files as well as establishing official document destruction guidelines can help a firm minimize records storage costs without compromising vital information.
Choosing a cross-cut shredder is basic to ensuring confidential documents are destroyed properly. Though for added security many attorneys vie for micro-cut shredders. Law offices of differing sizes may choose from small office shredders for boutique firms, to larger commercial shredders for law departments. Automatic shredders are also helpful for large law offices managing high volumes of documentation.
Establishing guidelines to determine how long a closed file should live in the firm requires a precise outline of file retention after the case is closed, and specific procedures for ensuring vital documents are retained and obsolete documents are shredded in a regulated manner. Paralegal Tonya Pierce makes these recommendations so paralegals and office staff are on the same page when it comes to document shredding: "At least two people in the office should be responsible for maintaining a schedule for purging and destroying both hard files and electronic files in retention. Having two people ensures that if one is prevented from following the protocol for whatever reason, the other person will step in to ensure that files are destroyed in a timely fashion in accordance with the office's retention and destruction policy."1 Though laws for legal records retention differ from state to state, here are some tips common to most legal document management policies:
All legal files, regardless of their classification, should be maintained for a specific period of time after a closed case. Best practices from the American Bar Association suggest 7-10 years, though that can vary from state to state and at the discretion of the law firm.2
Every document in the shredding pile should be placed there only with the discretion of a attorney who has thoroughly reviewed the files. This step prevents accidental shredding of key documents that may have met destruction criteria while still retaining attributes that are important for keeping the file.
When reviewing these documents, attorneys should be looking for such issues as:
Clients of closed cases must be informed that their closed files are about to be destroyed and must be given the opportunity to ask for copies of those files. When no response is received from the client it is safe to assume they have no objection to shredding the closed file. The former client should also be notified that their files are scheduled for destruction 90-days after the date the letter is mailed.
A permanent list or database of destroyed files must be kept. The file will contain a description of the closed file, a sign off from an attorney at the firm determining the file is ready for destruction, and the date the file was shredded.
Outlining the best document retention/destruction policy for your practice will minimize risk while maintaining an efficient records management system that saves on overhead expenses in the long-term.
For more information, as well as sample document destruction retention policies, visit:
American Bar Association
CAN Professional Counsel
1. Tonya Pierce AgileLaw: "A Paralegal's Guide to Document Management, Retention and Destruction." //www.agilelaw.com/2014/08/paralegals-guide-document-management-retention-destruction/
2. Lee R. Nemchek "Records Retention in the Private Legal Environment: Annotated Bibliography and Program" //www.aallnet.org/mm/Publications/llj/LLJ-Archives/Vol-93/pub_llj_v93n01/2001-01.pdf
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