From IPE: Model Document Retention Guidelines

Model Document Retention Guidelines
guest author: Christine Flynn

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Paralegals – the true organizers of anything and everything related to a file. This responsibility certainly does not cease at the conclusion of the case.  Paralegals must continue to rely upon organizational skills in order to comply with all internal guidelines and/or Best Practices with respect to document retention and destruction- in both a paper based and electronic world. There are numerous benefits to establishing and maintaining an effective document retention system. Even the most efficient law firm may struggle in keeping up with the daunting task of document retention, scanning, storage and ultimate destruction of files. Therefore, creating a model document retention system can certainly assist staff in handling these tasks in a more efficient manner, while ensuring compliance with internal guidelines, legislative and regulatory requirements.

Initially, consult internal firm regulations or Best Practices with respect to whether model document retention principles have been established. If no recommendations are readily available, advocate for the drafting of these important rules. These theories include an introduction and overview with respect to the definition, purpose and benefits of the model document retention procedures, including an outline of ethical considerations. The introduction needs to stress mandatory compliance by all employees.

The framework of the model rules should set forth the following:

1. Procedures for closing files.
2. Checklists of tasks to be completed in closing files (e.g. receipt closing documents, scanning documents, removing duplicates, etc.).
3. Designation of storage location.
4. Time frames for retention and file destruction.
5. Listing of items exempt from destruction.
6. Sample letters to clients/experts/vendors regarding file destruction time frames.
7. Methods and options for destruction.
8. Procedures for retrieval of closed files.
9. Policies for documenting final destruction.

The model rules must include the identification of the individual, department or vendor responsible for destruction, i.e. internal mailroom personnel, shredding companies or vendors, with applicable contact information. A list of individuals involved in closing, retention or destruction of files can then be circulated to all members of the legal team. This will serve to alleviate stress, misunderstanding and confusion in the area of file retention and destruction, as well as facilitate an expedited response in the retrieval of closed files. Open communication and timely notification remain crucial components in the handling of closed files to ensure that all members of the legal team are aware of roles and responsibilities.

It is essential to remain cognizant of the fact that procedures outlined in the model rules apply to both paper based as well as electronic files. These items include transferring electronic folders to a closed file location within the document management system, software and programs, as well proper destruction and storage of electronic items, such as flash drive and CDs.

Finally, a paralegal must have a finger on the pulse of federal, state and local rules with respect to file retention and document destruction guidelines, e.g. chain of command, return of client files, etc. Keep apprised of state and local bar association ethical opinions, directives and recent decisions, as well as the American Bar Association (ABA) web site and note modifications and updates to rules and procedures. Neither internal standards nor Best Practices are set in stone. It is imperative to monitor changes and update internal directives. The use of an effective document retention and destruction system will guard against potential malpractice claims, reduce errors, ensure that the firm runs smoothly and efficiently ultimately benefiting the legal team and improving client relations.

Christine Flynn is a litigation paralegal at the law firm of Haggerty, Goldberg, Schleifer & Kupersmith, P.C., where her specialties are personal injury, UM/UIM, coverage, bad faith, and appellate practice. She has 25 years of experience in her field. Ms. Flynn is the past president of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals and is currently serving as chair of the Litigation and Professional Development committees. Ms. Flynn also serves as pro bono coordinator and liaison to the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service for NFPA. She is a member of the Paralegal Studies Advisory Board at the Community College of Philadelphia and a past member of the Widener Law Center, Legal Education Institute’s Board of Advisors. Ms. Flynn is a member of the National Notary Association, as well as a paralegal member of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice and the Philadelphia Bar Association. She is the author of several articles for various publications, such as The Legal Intelligencer, Paralegal Today, and the National Paralegal Reporter. Ms. Flynn also has presented various paralegal webinars for the Institute of Paralegal Education (IPE).


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