The Typical Life Cycle Of A Client File
While most of us live in a computerized, digital world, the legal industry revolves primarily around information, notes, and documentation. Attorneys obtain information, then classify and organize it. A client file is how attorneys organize the information related to a client.
For every client that retains an attorney or law firm, there is a file. There may even be multiple files within files that contain documentation relevant to each matter concerning the client. The longer the client has been represented by the attorney or firm, the larger the file. Law firms must typically devote a large portion of their office space to the storage of client files.
A client’s file remains active as representation continues. During this time, only employees of the firm are allowed access to client files, which should be returned to their proper filing location daily. A file check-out card should also be used to track current possession of the file. The file must be maintained regularly with daily time spent adding new and unfiled items.
Included within each matter file should be subfiles, even color-coded, for pleadings, correspondence, attorney’s notes, research, documents, drafts, etc, with a file journal to track everything efficiently. This journal records the events of the file such as any record requests to and from other parties, client meetings, hearing dates, etc. – anything that provides the status of the file when an attorney receives that unexpected telephone call from the client asking for a case update.
Logical systems should be used to support the life cycle of the information contained in the file and to prevent its destruction or other disasters in case of an emergency. Records of the trust account activity must also be kept up-to-date and accurate. It is a wise course of action to use electronic media as a backup storage option for a client file.
A typical life cycle of a file is outlined below.
- Engagement letter drafted, signed by the client, describing the file retention policy of the lawyer, and stating the guidelines agreed to by the client for the lawyer to appropriately dispose of the file;
- New matter listed in the master log of new firm matters;
- File number assigned;
- File opened on firm’s computer system;
- Physical file folder created;
- Physical file for client use is created/duplicated for copies of documents received from the firm;
- Representation ends, closing letter sent to the client;
- File closed physically and closed in both computer and accounting systems;
- File checked and cleaned out for unnecessary items;
- File indexed;
- File stored onsite for an initial period of time;
- Contents of file reviewed by lawyer;
- File returned to the client in exchange for a signed receipt from the client; or file stored offsite for remaining time, based on an agreement with the client;
- Written notice sent to the client’s last address describing impending disposition;
- File returned to the client in exchange for a signed receipt from the client; or file destroyed after intrinsically valuable records are returned.)
In California, attorneys must “surrender papers and property to which the client is entitled.”
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