The case you've been working on has finally ended and now you're left with countless case files. Today, we're going to shed some light on closing case files, document retention, and other useful information lawyers need to know about in regards to their legal documents.
As firms tend to close nearly 65% of their cases within a year, those closed cases tend to pile up quickly. If you're not organized or clever about closing case files, all the work you've done could be for nothing if you don't offer that information for your next client. Closing your files is as important as the work you've done on a case in making that research and information available for next time.
Here are 6 things you need to know when it comes to closing case files.
1. Know When To Close
Your client's case files should only be closed at a certain point in the case. It should have reached its conclusion, with the final action completed in the case. The final bill for the case should have been paid in full.
If you had any information or instructions from your client for closing the case, take them into consideration at this point. You should confirm any oral communications in writing. If there are any written instructions, keep a copy of them around.
2. Give the Owner Their Due
While some firms might think they're entitled to a client's file in a certain way, that's not necessarily true. You don't own the file as their attorney or their law firm. The client owns the file, even long after the case has been closed.
If you need a copy of the file, it's on you to make the copy. You need to pay for the copying costs. You're not allowed to charge the client for that.
3. Stay Organized
You can keep together all the important details of the case and be able to look back on it quickly if you create a closing file memo. Your closing file memo is as much for you as it is for anyone who wants to look to your case in the future.
It should give a short summary of how you were involved with the case and it can become a sort of permanent record that you represented that client. Avoid writing a long and drawn out memo as shorter is always better.
Your closing file memo should be put on the file label, written short and succinctly to make everything efficient.
In order to differentiate your closed file from other files, use a marking methodology. Creating a color-coded system could help you to differentiate closed files from other files.
4. Time is of the Essence
Your office's docket system should have a place for you to enter closed matters into. If you have a schedule, mark that file to be reviewed in the future.
In 3-6 months, you can take a look at the file with fresh eyes. You'll be able to notice right away if there are any loose ends or anything you should take care of in the future.
If there is more work to be done, it can be scheduled and those deadlines can be made at that time.
In your calendar, you should also have a date for when you'll be destroying all the files you have. Mark the date on the folder so that you know if you've exceeded your original plans.
In every piece of communication, you should mark down the closing date so that you can avoid future conflicts of interest. Noting the index to differentiate between client and the adverse party will help you to steer clear of this.
There's a good chance that if someone wants more information about the case or wants to refer to the "closed matters" of your clients' case, it'll happen soon. Most of the time if anyone wants to open it up, it happens in the first year of when the file is closed. Rather than piling everything in with your closed files, having an interim file where you put recently closed matters could help keep you from losing anything.
5. Privacy Matters
As the representative of a client, you need to respect their privacy and the boundaries of your relationship. This relationship doesn't end when a file is closed. It applies to all of your past, present, and future clients. What they've told you in confidence is not yours to share with the world.
If there is any duplicate paperwork, you need to take this out of the file and pay for it to be properly destroyed. You should also get rid of unnecessary binding, paper clips, binders, and tabs marking different elements. This can make your physical file smaller and keep anything from falling out and into anyone else's hands.
6. Tech Can Help
If you're limited for space in your office, you should take the time to convert your files from hard copies to electronic versions. You'll save space and you'll save money in trying to store and maintain your paper copies.
Take the time to develop a document retrieval system for saving your briefs, pleadings, and research. All of that and the other information relevant to cases could be useful in a future case. If you set up something in-house, a sort of digital brief bank and form book, you can make sure every staff member is prepared for future cases.
Whether you keep your files on-site or not, you should make a note of where that file is located in your closed files. This index will help you locate what you're looking for in the case of an emergency. Keeping records of what you have specifically at each outside storage facility can streamline the document search process.
Closing Case Files Is a Cost-Saving Measure
When you take your time in closing case files, you give yourself the opportunity to avoid repeating mistakes or repeating research. The work you do in closing your files can make future cases successful. Focus on the needs of your clients while working the case, but as soon as it's done, think about the future of your firm and you could be saving yourself big time.
If it's time to move things off-site, check out our guide for how to store your documents safely.