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LawBiz® TIPS – Week of February 26, 2019

The Right Way to Handle Old Client Files

How Long Should a Client's Files be Kept?

Lawyers know they have an ethical duty to protect all documents on behalf of clients. The American Bar Association's Rule of Professional Conduct 1.15 requires that client property and files be "appropriately safeguarded." The rule stipulates no minimum time that this safeguarding must be done. Failure to keep these files safe is a failure in the overall duty to act competently in the best interests of a client.

The rules and specific time periods for storing or destroying client files vary by jurisdiction. Some states, for example, require a lawyer to securely store a client's file for 10 years after completion or termination of the representation unless lawyer and client make other arrangements.

The Burden of Storage Space

Often, this requirement is seen as a burden that creates nothing but problems for a small law office where storage space will be at a premium. After all, who wants to spend money for storing and maintaining, whether physically or electronically, "dead" files from past matters? But what if a change in perception could make a difference? Are old files, after all, really dead?

Use Old Files for Data Mining And Client Relations Management

Rather than looking at the issue in terms of storage, consider old files as sources of information for data mining or client relations management or practice development. After all, files are only dead if the past client himself or herself is dead. Otherwise, past clients have continuing legal needs. Why not send them reminder letters and letters announcing changes in the law every year or two? Such letters could spur a phone call or email on a matter that otherwise would never have been raised. A former client who trusts your judgment will welcome such contact.

Ethical Issues

There are ethical issues involved in making these contacts, particularly through email. But, if a client relationship has already been established, the concern is much less. To be certain, in the initial intake session, get full physical and email addresses for the client and get permission to make contact and update this information periodically - a perfect reason to send a reminder letter. This not only helps ongoing business development, it can have an ultimate payoff if and when you decide to sell your practice.

Developing the Firm's Reputation

A database with a list of several thousand current contacts is ample evidence that the firm has considerable goodwill invested in its reputation, client base and client loyalty. A buyer will, of course, want to look at open files that are still active - but open client contacts, even if no active matter is associated with them, is an excellent indication that the firm has a strong potential workflow whose value is accordingly enhanced.



The Right Way to Handle Old Client Files

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