The PLF gets frequent calls from lawyers asking about best practices for dealing with closed files. Traditionally, lawyers put their closed paper files in filing cabinets and store them in their office. When the cabinets are full, they move the files to a storage facility or the basement of the office building. The files stay there until destruction time, which is usually 10 years. See our File Retention and Destruction Guidelines here. As the years go by, lawyers end up with so many boxes or filing cabinets full of old paper files that storage space is no longer sufficient and storage cost is no longer affordable.
Is there a better way?If you do not want to store boxes and filing cabinets of old paper files, start converting them to electronic files. Promptly scan your paper when the matter is completed. You will save on storage and labor costs, and it’s easier to retrieve or access electronic files than paper files.
Take the following steps before starting the conversion process:
- Go through each file and identify all original documents. Return to the clients those originals that you not required to keep. For more information on retaining original documents, see our File Retention and Destruction Guideline.
- Remove duplicate copies of documents.
- Make sure the file is complete. See OSB Formal Opinion No. 2017-192 for a discussion of what constitutes the client file.
When you no longer want those files on your working computer or server, you can easily transfer them to an external hard drive or CDs. Some lawyers use a separate CD for each year, and when 10 years have passed, they securely destroy the CD.
It’s best to scan files as you close them. If you wait too long to scan, they will pile up and you will have a backlog. It’s easier and more motivating to scan one or two files at a time as opposed to scanning a big pile of them.
You may have many years’ worth of old files still waiting to be shredded at the end of the 10-year mark. Should you scan those files? It’s really up to you. If you have the time, motivation, and resources to scan them, start with the most recent closed files first and work your way backward. If you don’t have the time or inclination, I suggest adopting a “today forward” approach of promptly scanning your files as you close them. It’s okay to just leave those old paper files as they are until it’s time to securely destroy them.
What about really old files?
The PLF has a helpful checklist for scanning client files available here.