In the face of cases like Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States and United Corp. v. Tutu Park Ltd., it is imperative for legal firms to establish and follow a document retention policy. This type of policy outlines how a firm identifies, organizes, maintains, accesses, retains and destroys paper and electronic documents in its everyday operations. Implementing such as policy not only enhances productivity, but also ensures legislative and regulatory compliance.
Document Retention Principles
- Inventory: It’s not enough to keep documents filed in an orderly fashion. You must also identify paper and electronic documents that each department and individual creates. Knowing this information allows a firm to properly keep and purge its documents in accordance with its records retention schedule.
- Indexing: Not only must you know what documents exist within a firm, you should also create a searchable database that allows you to find different documents based on their active status or key terms. A good index allows you to authenticate record sources and provides documentation regarding their destruction. Document management software creates inventories and indexes for electronic files.
- Legal considerations: It is up to a firm to to learn and stay up to date regarding local and federal laws and standards about document retention, holds and destruction, as different types of documents have different retention periods. A firm, for example, may need to retain personnel records for five years, but maintain client records for longer. In addition to considering the amount of time that you must retain a record according to the law, a firm must also make retention decisions based on factors such as ongoing use, historical value and audit requirements.
- Physical storage considerations: In today’s electronic age, firms often scan documents to save physical space. There are instances, however, in which you must retain original documents. The ideal environment for storing documents is one that preserves them long-term. This means the documents are not exposed to sunlight and the storage room is not under water pipes, save the sprinkler system. The environment has the ideal temperature and relative humidity levels to prevent degradation and mold growth. Files are in a water- and fire-resistant cabinet that locks to promote their salvageability in the event of a disaster.
- Physical storage considerations: When digitally storing documents, make sure that all the documents that are crucial to a firm’s operations are backed up to prevent information losses in the event of a disaster. Redundant backup solutions to employ include copying files to CDs or DVDs, as well as offsite backups to a cloud storage provider that your respective state’s Bar Association endorses. Along with digital files, keep a copy of the software that the firm uses and their license keys in a safe location offsite in the event that you need to reinstall programs to access digital files.
In law firms, it’s always best to destroy records in accordance to the firm’s official records management and document retention policy. The policies for electronic documents and paper documents should be the same to avoid confusion. After creating a policy, review and update it regularly so they reflect the latest rulings. As technologies change, so will the law. Staying up to date on both keeps your firm competitive.
A comprehensive document retention policy serves as a litigation preparedness and disaster preparedness tool. Polygon offers comprehensive document drying and salvaging solutions that promote business continuity after a disaster. Take your firm’s disaster preparedness a step further with Code Blue, a program that gives you priority access to Polygon’s services and works with your firm to establish a document recovery plan before the unthinkable occurs. Contact Polygon today to learn more about minimizing the financial and legal impacts of a disaster.
[Photo from DES Daughter via CC License 2.0]