A paralegal’s guide to document management, retention and destruction
I heard someone refer to paralegals as “glorified paper-pushers (actually, it was a paralegal who said that). I believe that paralegals who see themselves as “glorified paper-pushers” might be frustrated because they do not have an efficient document management plan. One of the most frustrating things about being a paralegal can be the amount of paper you handle for each case. When you multiply that by the number of cases a paralegal must handle, the total pieces of paper that he or she must manage can be in the tens or hundreds of thousands. On top of that, you must add the digital documents (i.e. emails, scanned documents, etc.) that must be organized and tracked.
If you spend an enormous amount of time rifling through files searching for documents, it will make you frustrated and it will affect your work performance. You will be working harder but producing less. The object is to work smart so that you exceed expectations without causing yourself undue stress. The first step in achieving this goal is to develop a strong document management plan.
Once you have an efficient document management plan in place, you will be able to work more efficiently with less effort and frustration. Furthermore, you will not only make your job easier but you will also make your attorney’s job easier, which is always appreciated.
Tips for Document Management
Have a system and use it religiously
There is not a perfect or a “right” way to organize your files; however, files should be labeled consistently throughout the office, both hard files and online files. This allows each person in the office from the receptionist through to the managing partner to pick up a file and know exactly where to look to find a document within the file. The labels you choose will be specific to the area of law that your firm practices. Examples of file labels include:
- Attorney notes
- Client information
- Billable time and invoices
- Medical records
- Tax returns
Your labeling system should carry over into your electronic files. Having a simple protocol that all employees will use to save documents will help you keep track of computer files and avoid items being “lost” because everyone in the office has a different system for saving files. An easy to use protocol would mimic your hard files:
- Client name/file folder/name of document/date (AJones/Pleadings/Complaint/8-1-14.doc)
Some electronic document management systems employ tags rather than folders. Tags provide additional flexibility because you can mix and match them rather than place a document only in a single file. Even with tags you should continue to employ a standard, uniform system across all cases.
Once you have a system for document management, you should make filing a daily priority. The best system is ineffective if you do not place documents in their proper place. Unfiled documents can cause problems in your case and could result in your client being harmed because of an avoidable mistake.
Retention and Destruction
Just as it is imperative that you have a system for organizing your files, you must have a system for storing and destroying files. You are aiming to have a uniform, reasonable and consistent policy for archiving and destroying files.
The retention system should be consistent and should, at a minimum, cover the following issues:
- Specify the retention period for specific categories of files (i.e. divorce, paternity, real estate closing, corporate filing, personal injury, etc.);
- Take into consideration deadlines and requirements imposed by the applicable law or regulation when you set retention periods;
- Specify where files will be stored (onsite or offsite);
- Include standard procedures for retaining information unique to electronic files;
- Accounting system for moving files from active to retention status;
- Identify staff members who are responsible for managing the retention system and discussing updates to the policy with attorneys as needed;
- Detailed plan for organizing, cataloging and storing files so that a file can be retrieved expediently when needed;
- Specify the procedure to dispose of the documents within the file when the retention period has ended; and,
- Explain how destruction of a file will be suspended should the file need to be recalled due to appeals, litigation or other events that would require the file to be moved to active status.
Having a file closing checklist can help ensure that procedures are followed and client’s information and confidentiality is protected. Make copies or electronic scans of original client documents and return the originals to the client prior to archiving the file. Advise the client, in writing, that the file is being archived and a deadline for the client to request copies of the file before it goes to storage. The letter must also contain an anticipated date of destruction.
At least two people in the office should be responsible for maintaining a schedule for purging and destroying both hard files and electronic files in retention. Having two people ensures that if one is prevented from following the protocol for whatever reason, the other person will step in to ensure that files are destroyed in a timely fashion in accordance with the office’s retention and destruction policy.
Lastly, the destruction method you choose should take into consideration client confidentiality. Whether you choose the shred hard files in-house or use a shredding service, you must make sure that documents are destroyed in a confidential manner. The key to a successful document management, retention and destruction system is to keep client confidentiality as a top priority. The second priority should be a uniform system that everyone in the office uses for every document that enters the office.