File Retention & Destruction Policy

After reviewing the following information, download a copy of the sample Word document here. 

Guidelines for Development of a File Retention and Destruction Policy for Missouri Law Firms

WARNING AND DISCLAIMER

These Client File Retention and Destruction Guidelines are intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Because of the unique characteristics of individual law firms, lawyers, clients and representations, no single set of guidelines can cover every situation. Therefore, it is essential that every law firm and lawyer make an independent evaluation of their legal and professional obligations and conform these guidelines as necessary to meet those requirements.

Client File Basics

Lawyers customarily think of the files in their offices as their files. That is, the paper and documents contained in those files belong to them, the lawyers, not their clients. However, in its Formal Opinion 115, binding on all Missouri attorneys, the Advisory Committee of the Supreme Court of Missouri concluded that under the Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct, the file belongs to the client from “cover to cover.”

 

The client file includes:

  1. documents brought to the attorney by the client or the client’s agents;
  2. pleadings pertinent to the case;
  3. depositions or other discovery documents pertinent to the case that the client
  4. was billed and has paid for, and
  5. “work product” (i.e., notes in the file consisting of attorney’s impressions about
  6. the case and notes containing comments and thoughts made during phone conversations with the client). See, Formal Opinion 115 and Informal Opinion 980141.
If the client requests it, the lawyer must turn over the original file. If the lawyer chooses to keep a copy of the file, the lawyer may do so at the lawyer’s own expense. However, those items for which the attorney has borne out-of-pocket expenses, such as transcripts, may be retained until client pays for them. Formal Opinion 115.
Formal Opinion 115 further states that Missouri does not recognize the common law retaining lien. Therefore, if a client owes an outstanding fee and requests the file from the lawyer, the lawyer cannot hold the file in order to force client to pay the lawyer’s fee.
Items in the file of intrinsic value, say an original will, stock certificates, deeds, or any document that evidences the client’s interest in money or property, may never be destroyed. Informal Opinion 950151.
When files are destroyed, the destruction must be done in a way “which assures that client confidences are not revealed.” Informal Opinion 990122.
Further, M.R.P.C. 4-1.15(h) Safekeeping Property, states:

 

A lawyer shall securely store a client’s file for 10 years after completion or termination of the representation absent other arrangements between the lawyer and client. If the client does not request the file within 10 years after completion or termination of the representation, the file shall be deemed abandoned by the client and may be destroyed.

 

A lawyer shall not destroy a file pursuant to this Rule 4-1.15(h) if the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that:

(1) A legal malpractice claim is pending related to the representation;

(2) A criminal or other governmental investigation is pending related to the representation;

(3) A complaint is pending under Rule 5 related to the representation; or

(4) Other litigation is pending related to the representation.

Items in the file with intrinsic value shall never be destroyed.

A lawyer destroying a file pursuant to this Rule 4-1.15(h) shall securely store items of intrinsic value or deliver such items to the state unclaimed property agency. The file shall be destroyed in a manner that preserves client confidentiality.

A lawyer’s obligation to maintain trust account records as required by Rule 4-1.15(a) is not affected by this Rule 4-1.15(h).

Although not required by the rule, if a law firm intends to rely on the rule’s ten-year “abandonment” period as its retention period, it is recommended that the firm disclose that time period in its Engagement Letter or Fee Agreement. If the firm’s client file retention period is less than the rule’s ten years, the file retention period should be set out in the Engagement Letter or Fee Agreement. For suggested language for this disclosure, see The Missouri Bar Sample Fee Agreement Form:
Lawyer will maintain Client’s file for ____ years after this matter is concluded. Client may request the file at any time during, upon conclusion of, or after conclusion of, this matter. ____ years after the conclusion of this matter, the file may be destroyed without further notice to Client.
The file retention policy should be reiterated in the Closing Letter. If there has been no disclosure of the retention period in the Engagement Letter of Fee Agreement, the period must be set out in the Closing Letter and client consent obtained to the file’s destruction accordingly obtained. Informal Opinion 20010018.
And while sending copies of pleadings, letters, etc., to the client during the representation is a good way to build positive client relations, it is not a substitute for the actual file.
Regarding electronic files, the original is still the client’s property. Therefore, an attorney must get the client’s consent before destroying the file, even if it has been scanned into a computer or on CD-Rom. Also, it is not permissible to scan a client’s original paper file onto disk, and then destroy the paper file, without first obtaining the client’s permission to do so. Informal Opinion 20010147.
What’s Right for You and Your Firm?
The initial consideration for any file retention policy is to determine what actions will be taken regarding the client’s file. Generally, these actions are:
1. Transfer to storage;
2. Transfer to the client;
3. Transfer, per client’s instructions, to a third-party, such as another lawyer or law firm;
4. Destruction of the file.
Each of the actions can require different tasks on a lawyer’s part to ensure the lawyer satisfies his legal and professional obligations.
With the foregoing in mind, the following is set forth as a sample law firm file destruction policy:

 

File Retention and Destruction Policy

 

File Retention and Destruction Policy of the XXXXX Law Firm

 

File Retention Policy

At the conclusion of a representation, generally, the first action taken on the file will be to close it in preparation of transferring to storage. At this time the responsible lawyer shall:

 

  1. Ascertain conclusively that the lawyer’s representation is unambiguously concluded, evidenced by the firm’s Closing Letter stating that the representation is concluded.
  2. Depending on the type of representation, additional review should be engaged in before forwarding a file for storage. For example:Any document originally created electronically and maintained in electronic form thereafter (for example, e-mails), is part of the file. The firm’s computers should be scanned to ascertain whether a particular file contains such documents. If such documents are found they should be (pick one of the following options) [Printed to hard copy and placed in the file] [Segregated to an electronic file and maintained for the retention time period determined for that client’s file generally].
    1. In litigated matters, there should be a satisfaction of judgment or a final dismissal of the matter through settlement, exhaustion of appeals, or abandonment thereof;
    2. In a bankruptcy representation there should be a discharge or debtor payment of claims or discharge of the trustee or receiver;
    3. A dissolution representation file should have a final judgment or dismissal;
    4. A final judgment or dismissal of action should be in a the file in tort actions.
  3. There should be a determination of all fee balances and the intended resolution as to any unpaid balances;
  4. If money was placed in a trust account during the representation, there should be a final accounting of all such proceeds;
  5. Items in the file of intrinsic value should be noted at this time, and a determination made of whether such items are appropriately held in storage with the file, or should be immediately forwarded to the client. Items with intrinsic value may never be destroyed, even if the client consents to the destruction of the file generally, or upon abandonment of the file pursuant to Rule 1.15(h). Examples of items with intrinsic value include, but are not limited to, original wills, stock certificates, deeds, and/or any document that is evidence of a client’s interest in money or property;
  6. During this review, items in the file that the lawyer knows can be recovered from another source, may, in the lawyer’s discretion, be removed and destroyed. (NB: Notes in the file consisting of an attorney’s impressions, thoughts, and comments about the case are part of the file and may not be destroyed, see Informal Opinion 980141.) A record should be made of these items so they can be recovered and replaced in the file in the event the client requests the file prior to destruction. Examples of these items are:
    1. Copies of documents previously filed with the court;
    2. Copies of legal opinions;
    3. Depositions otherwise available in electronic form;
    4. Miscellaneous office supplies;
  7. If the lawyer has previously sent the client a copy of a document, the copy may serve as that portion of a client’s file:
    1. If an explanation has been given to the client of this process prior to sending the copy, and
    2. Because the original file belongs to the client, if there is an original in the file, a copy does not fulfill the obligation to the client unless the attorney and client have agreed that it will.
    3. f both conditions are not met, attorney should provide the file to the client and keep copies at Attorney’s own expense. See, Informal Opinion 20030047.

File storage should be done in a manner that ensures the confidentiality of the client’s information and the physical integrity of the file.

 

When a file is being transferred to the client or transferred, per client’s instructions, to a third-party, such as another lawyer or law firm, all of the above steps should be followed, with the exception of Item 6. Further, the firm’s Closing Letter should specifically clarify the circumstances under which the file is being transferred.

 

 

File Destruction Policy

At the XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX Law Firm, files will be maintained for a minimum period of ten years from the conclusion of the representation. However, it may be appropriate in some circumstances to maintain our clients’ files for a longer period of time to protect both the law firm’s and client’s interests. A client file shall not be destroyed without the review and approval of the responsible attorney in the representation, or if that lawyer is unavailable, a lawyer designated by law firm management, even in circumstances where the client file is being destroyed pursuant to the ten year safe harbor provision of Rule 4-1.15(h). The reviewing lawyer shall consider all relevant factors that bear on the appropriateness of file destruction, including, but not limited to:

  1. Whether the statute of limitations for legal malpractice has run, or has been tolled. To know whether the action has been tolled in any particular situation requires the application of the discreet facts of the case to the law on tolling a statute of limitations;
  2. If the representation was of a minor client, has the client reached majority age at the time of review;
  3. Whether client expressed dissatisfaction with the representation or outcome;
  4. Whether there remains an unsatisfied judgment that cannot be renewed. The file should be maintained until such time as a malpractice action could no longer be brought after the date for renewal expires;
  5. If minor children were tangentially involved a file shall not be destroyed until all such children reach majority age, plus the extinguishment of their rights to a malpractice action;
  6. In a dissolution representation, a file shall be maintained so long as there are any acts left to be executed by any party, and during the pendency of an award of spousal maintenance or child support,
  7. When there is a structured settlement, the file shall be maintained until all payments are made;
  8. In collections cases, the file shall be maintained until the judgment is paid or until renewal of the judgment is no longer viable, plus the time for bringing a malpractice action;
  9. In criminal representations, the file shall be maintained for the longer of either:
    1. the length of incarceration and/or parole, or the satisfaction by the client of any alternative sentence, such as Community Service, fines, disgorgement, restitution, SES or SIS, or
    2. the period of time for bringing a malpractice action;
  10. In corporate representations, the file shall be maintained for the life of the corporation plus the period of time for bringing a malpractice action;
  11. In estate planning, estate administration and probate matters, the file shall be maintained until the resolution of the final accounting plus the time period for bringing a malpractice action;
  12. In Trust administration matters, the file shall be maintained until all operative trust clauses are exhausted, plus the time period for bringing a malpractice action;
  13. Explicit confirmation that none of the conditions requiring continued maintenance of the file, as set out in Rule 4-1.15(h)(1-4), are present, even in circumstances where destruction is pursuant to an agreement between the lawyer and the client.

 

Client Notification

If we have advised the client of our file retention period at the inception of the representation, as recommended above, notification to the client is not needed at the time of destruction. If we have not previously obtained the client’s consent to the destruction of the file at the time of destruction, the file shall not be destroyed until the requirements of Rule 4-1.15(h) have been met, and the file has been reviewed by the responsible attorney in the representation according to the provisions of the File Destruction Policy.

 

After Destruction

After the destruction of the file, the law firm shall maintain records of:

  1. The file’s opening and closing;
  2. The date of the conclusion or termination of the representation;
  3. Whether the file was destroyed pursuant to an agreement with the client or Rule 4-1.15;
  4. If destruction was pursuant to an agreement with the client, a copy of the communication (Engagement Letter/Fee Agreement or other written document) notifying the client of the retention/destruction policy, and the client’s consent thereto, if required;
  5. The date of destruction;
  6. The attorney that authorized the destruction.