It's Not Hoarding If the Professional Conduct Rules Make You Do It

posted by Mike Regnier on Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Attorney with client files

Television shows featuring hoarders have aired for years, exploring the homes and lives of people who find it difficult to throw anything away. Usually, the show finds a homeowner drowning in a rising tide of papers and flotsam until the professional host dives in to save them. 

The same thing can happen in a lawyer’s office as client materials accumulate over time. Litigators have been known to create fortresses of files around their desks, complete with battlements of briefs and parapets of paper clips, while estate planners can create a warren of wills so extensive that you need a Gringotts goblin and a mining cart to traverse it.

A lawyer naturally has an impulse to save documents since it can be difficult to know what to keep, how long to keep it and what to destroy. Implementing a systematic document retention policy can help maintain an organized office and ensure compliance with your state’s ethical rules.

The Board of Professional Conduct of the Supreme Court of Ohio recently issued an Ethics Guide on Client File Retention. In it, the Board covered a range of topics including how long a lawyer must keep a closed file, what part of the file the client owns, development of a client file retention policy and notifications that should be provided to clients.

On the topic of how long an attorney must keep a closed client’s file, the Board stated that is “nearly impossible” to establish a minimum retention period that applies in all circumstances. However, it pointed out that the Rules of Professional Conduct require IOLTA/trust account records to be maintained for seven years after termination of representation and indicated that other jurisdictions require the lawyer to maintain the client’s file for the entire IOLTA retention period, i.e. for seven years.

The Board went on to state that the records for certain matters may need to be kept for longer than seven years, and, in some cases, indefinitely. These included files related to minors, estate planning, tax, criminal and business issues, each of which may require a different retention period. Practitioners should check the rules or guides in their jurisdiction to learn what their governing body requires for document retention.

For more information, the March 2016 Ohio Ethics Guide on Client File Retention is available online.

Lawyers can struggle striking a balance between an organized office and client file retention obligations. Though it may also leave desks undefended and goblin’s unemployed, a comprehensive document retention policy can help prevent unknowing violations of your state’s file retention rules.