Best Practice Tips for the Law Firm Records Management professional
Law firms are in the information business. Information is a critical operational asset for firms, and is effectively the primary product. With the dramatic explosion of the volume of information and the risks inherent in operating in a largely digital universe, it is not only prudent but critical for firms to invest in developing an effective information governance strategy and a mature records and information management (RIM) program.
Effective records and information management for law firms
In order to manage records and information effectively, however, a firm must adopt and enforce a set of policies and procedures to ensure consistent behavior. To do this, try these best practices:
1. Include your firm’s client file retention policy in your engagement letters. By forming an agreement with your client at the outset of the engagement, your firm may enjoy the freedom to carry out your policy without having to track down the client at the end of the retention period, therefore saving time, money and administrative headaches.
2. Send a letter at the conclusion of each matter that disengages the firm as well as restates the firm’s record retention practices. This is simply a reminder of what was agreed to at the outset of the matter, but it can serve many benefits, such as final billing instructions, clarifying lawyer/client status for conflicts of interest purposes, and anything else your firm wants to include.
3. Return original documents/documents provided by the client immediately after imaging. Because the rules are fairly specific about a firm’s obligation to safeguard client property, particularly financial instruments, it is best to avoid keeping the original in the first place by making a copy or an image at the point it is received and then sending the original back.
4. Physically arrange your files (paper and electronic) based on your firm’s ownership distinctions. By making conscious decisions about the way documents and folders are arranged and named, it makes the generally onerous task of culling the file at the end of an engagement, or release to the client/succeeding counsel, a much simpler one.
5. Publish your RIM policy in plain sight and train your firm on what it means, then train them again, and again. There must be a serious effort to train firm personnel in enforcing a RIM policy in order for any policy to be effective.
6. Stop saving everything. Use your retention policy pervasively and consistently. Apply it to everything – email, file shares, document repositories (on-premise and in the cloud; physical documents and electronic ones), duplicate material, drafts, and voicemail. “Forever” and “just in case” are not valid retention periods. While the commodity price of digital storage looks cheap on its face, the total cost of that storage is exponentially more expensive – and it is NEVER free!
7. Operationalize for consistency. Spending the time to develop and execute on the above best practices will eventually be for naught if a mature RIM program is not put in place and supported with appropriate staff and technology that operationalizes policy to achieve consistency and cost efficiency.
Learn more about records and information management for law firms here.