The matter of client file maintenance in the digital age

January 15, 2014

LAW hammer on computer folder. 3D Icon isolated on white backgroFor the vast majority of practicing attorneys, clients are the primary source of income.  In other words, attorneys need clients to make a living.

For every client, attorneys need to maintain a file.  Even if it weren’t required by rules of professional ethics, it’s a necessity of practicing law – since doing otherwise would make being an attorney almost prohibitive difficult.

After all, files contain everything you need to know about your clients: court filings and orders, your notes about the case, communications with both your client and the other party, and invoices.

But how should you organize your client files?

Before the advent of electronic communications, organizing a file was easy: you’d have paper copies of everything, and the diligent attorney would keep sufficient handwritten notes of telephone conversations with clients and opposing parties.

Today, however, we have communications through electronic channels in addition to traditional paper methods.  Some courts still send orders and communications in paper form through U.S. mail, while others will only conduct communications electronically.

Client communications can be even more complex.  Many clients still communicate primarily by phone, but an increasing number will use email or text messages.  How can you keep all of these communications?

And what about storage?

Traditionally, paper storage was deemed adequate; but if your paper records are somehow destroyed through no fault of your own, it’s uncertain whether you would be free from liability or from potential disciplinary action, since various means of electronic document storage are readily available.

In short, client file maintenance and storage are not as simple as they used to be.  But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be made to be simple once again.

After all, new technologies are designed to make your life easier, and the technology available to legal professionals can certainly do that with file organization.

As I’ve stated previously, you should have electronic copies of all of your client files.  I am a still a strong advocate for this approach because of how easy it makes client file management.

What this means, in effect, is having a folder on your computer or on a secured, remote server that contains everything that would be in a paper client file.

It’s easy enough to store documents that you already had in electronic form, but if you ever receive any paper-only copies of documents related to your client’s case, you will need to scan them in and add them to the client’s folder.

But not everything in the paper client folder easily translates into an electronic form.  I’m specifically referring to your notes as the attorney about the client’s case, be they from court appearances, client meetings, settlement discussions, or anything else.

If you’re like me, you still take notes with a pen and paper.  This can still fit in the electronic client file scheme, but you have to take extra steps to make sure that you are staying organized with your notes.

S030192Here’s what I mean:

In taking notes manually, it’s very easy to use any paper that you have available, including (unfortunately) sticky notes.  Not only does this type of note-taking create a risk of lost information, but it also makes it very difficult to transfer the notes to electronic storage.

So, if you (like me) insist on continuing to take your notes with pen and paper, keep them on a legal pad that you scan into your electronic file folder as soon as possible.  This will minimize any risk of lost information that is inherent in manual note-taking.

If you’re looking for a digital alternative, many attorneys use tablets to take notes.  Although some use the tablet’s keyboard for this purpose, others find this approach a bit too clunky.

What is their preference?  One of any number of mobile apps that allow you to use a stylus to take handwritten notes on your tablet.  This may not create notes as easily legible or searchable as typewritten ones, but it allows you to do what feels more natural in effectively using a pen and paper without having the hassle of scanning your notes into an electronic format.

But all of these note-taking options are viable.  You should select whichever works best for you.

It’s important to note (no pun intended) that the existence of a complete electronic version of your client file does not render a paper copy obsolete.

Rather, your paper file should be as complete as the electronic one, and here’s why.

You may not be able to bring your mobile device everywhere (i.e. many judges still ban such devices in the courtroom).  If you can’t bring your tablet, you still must have access to your case information and documents regardless.  Thus, paper is your only option in these situations.

Aside from practice of law-related reasons such as these, maintaining a secure paper file also mitigates the risk of losing your file through some kind of accident.

Yes, paper is susceptible to physical destruction, but electronic data may be lost just as easily – if not more so.  If through some horrible turn of events your electronic data storage failed and all of your client files were lost, you would still have the paper copies to rely on.

But this brings up another important practice in file maintenance: making backups of your electronic files.

If you store your files on a remote server, make regular backups that you store on a local device (laptop, desktop, external hard drive, etc).  If you keep your files stored locally, regularly make multiple backups that you store on multiple different devices.

In other words, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket; make copies of your eggs and keep them in multiple baskets.

Firm Central Banner