Document Storage and Ethics – The Lawyer's Duty

Originally published on SnapScan, October 14, 2010

An article by Derek Flower, Senior Account Manager, Fujitsu, on how document scanning can make a law office's record management task easier is instructive, however, there's more to the issue. It is a lawyer's 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.

This of course can create a problem for a small law office, where storage space will be at a premium. A solo practitioner who was running out of room recently contacted me. In just three years she already had accumulated more than 20 bankers' boxes of case files. Ideally she wanted to scan everything but important originals like contracts, keep the scanned electronic files in multiple locations for security, and shred everything else – which she estimated would leave her with just two bankers' boxes. It seemed the perfect solution, but she was uncertain if this process was acceptable or allowed under ethics rules. My advice was: go for it … so long as you check your jurisdiction's storage rules first before going the paper shredding/electronic file storage route

After the storage time requirement lapses, destroy the paper files by shredding the hard copies through a bonded company that assures security in the shredding process. Be sure to keep copies of the scanned electronic files in several locations as an added layer of security. You'll not only have more space in your office – you'll have, as Derek's post noted, a file database that is easily searchable, saving both time and money. If you comply with jurisdictional rules, you have nothing to lose but your clutter.

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