Establishing a record retention policy for legal services
programs entails: when to close and destroy files.
Guidelines for closing client files:
1. State Bar Rules. Check with your state bar association or state
ethics committee for their opinion. Many have issued guidelines regarding
an attorney's obligations to retain records. For example, it is important
to save all case records involving minors or juveniles at least until they
reach the age of majority.
2. Return Client Papers and Client Monies. Insure that client
papers, as well as any remaining client trust funds, are automatically
returned. Return these items with a cover letter, and keep a copy of this
letter in your file.
3. Destroy Extraneous Documents. Destroy all extra copies of
pleadings, correspondence, and reports. The attorney assigned to the case
should decide if research notes, drafts and work papers can also be
4. Review the File for Form Legal Work. Review all files for
pleadings, legal memoranda and other legal work that should be reproduced
and placed in the program's brief and pleadings file.
5. Check Pubic Record Documents. Check the clerk's office to see
that all documents that are public records, such as divorce decrees, final
adoption papers, are on file in the courthouse.
6. Check for Correct Address and Phone Number of Client. Check the
latest address and phone number in the file against the address in the
client card file.
7. Set Standard Closing Interval. Decide on a standard time
interval after which most files should be closed. These files can then be
moved into closed storage, Any physical relocation of the case files
should be noted in a Master Client Index, if one exists.
Space limitations and program growth often make
destruction of records a necessary alternative to indefinite storage. This
question should be discussed and, if judged desirable, guidelines for
record destruction should be established. Putting documents on CD-ROM or
on computers preserves the information while eliminating the storage
The issues of what ethical duties an attorney has on retaining former
clients’ files and whether an attorney is ethically required to retain the
files after representation is over are discussed in Formal Opinion No.
2001-157 of the State Bar of California Standing Committee of Professional
Responsibility and Conduct.
“Client File Retention and Ethics” by Ernest Schaal. The Bottom Line,
Volume 24, No. 4, August 2003. State Bar of California Law Office Practice
Management & Technology.