By Jared Correia, IndyBar Law Practice Management Consultant, Red Cave Law Firm Consulting
By now, the vast majority of law firms want to run paperless offices. The problem is often figuring out the logistics — especially for law firms with decades of history (and files) behind them. The most daunting question is often how to get started. So, let’s talk about how you can get paperless, even with a pile of paper behind you. This is the playbook:
If necessary, audit your files. Organize by year, then by client, then by matter.
Collect any files that were closed more than six years earlier. If you have previously gotten permission/consent from your clients to dispose of those files, do so in a confidential manner. If you haven’t, contact the clients associated with those files and ask them whether they wish to retrieve them or receive them. (If they do, it usually means more business for the law firm as past clients tend to generate new referrals in this context.) Once clients are returned these files, inform you they don’t want them, or don’t contact you back after you’ve made reasonable efforts to reach out to them, you have no further obligations to keep your records of those files and can destroy them in a confidential manner.
For files that are active or were closed less than six years ago, you’re obliged to keep those files. For any new cases, begin to scan those documents and save them to one online document repository as a matter of firm policy moving forward. For active cases, scan and save all new documents that come in. Then, destroy the paper files unless you have a legal or ethical obligation to keep a paper version of a specific document. Electronic files are the functional equivalents of paper files. For archived cases, scan them in as single file (one PDF) and save them in folders organized by year. Thereafter, as those files age out (more than six years after close), you may dispose of them.
Add a clause to your fee agreement asking clients to authorize your destruction of their files six years after close of representation unless they wish you to return those files to them. This obviates the notice requirement that would otherwise apply when a case is closed.
Keep in mind, of course, that because online storage of electronic documents is so cheap, you don’t need to actually destroy any of your files — you can keep them in perpetuity if you wish. Just keep them in electronic format while disposing of paper equivalents so you can have your basement or attic back.•