Paper Cut: Best Practices for Avoiding the Sting of a Paperless Law Office
Here’s a question for attorneys with an established small firm practice: if you had to start over and develop a new law practice tomorrow, what would you do differently?
For many lawyers in Iowa, this hypothetical question became all too real in June 2008 when several storms pummeled the state, causing unprecedented flooding and tornado damage, and ultimately displacing over 240 lawyers after their offices became uninhabitable.
In nearly every circumstance involving a firm caught in a storm disaster, the lawyers from these firms found that old and new client files are the most vulnerable of the firm’s assets. If you have never seen client files that have been exposed to flood waters you may be surprised to find how quickly the files become an immediate and total loss. If the files are exposed to relatively clean water, mold growth will quickly break down and decay the documents.
Clean water is not usually the normal condition of flood waters. In the case of one lawyer from Blackhawk County, Iowa, flood waters forced sewage to back up into the firm’s basement file storage area, contaminating all the firm’s closed files dating from 1991 to 2003. The County authorities quickly ordered the contents of the basement, including the files, to be removed and buried in a nearby landfill. The lawyer never even had the chance to make a list of the files being carried down the road by a front-end loader for burial.
Sadly, just a few weeks earlier, a tornado with winds exceeding 260 miles-per-hour tore through nearby Parkersburg, Iowa, lifting buildings off foundations, turning cars into missiles, and tearing the bark off trees. Files stored in steel file cabinets held up considerably well after being retrieved from the muck of a nearby field. But it’s usually not the open, active client files that are stored in protective cabinets every night, and the whereabouts of many of those files are still being determined over a year later.
For Iowa lawyers affected by the spring storms of 2008, the answer to the question, “What would you do differently if you were forced to start a new law practice tomorrow?” usually includes a resolve to start scanning and storing client documents. New attorneys starting their law practices often remark that scanning file documents and storing them digitally seems like a natural thing to do. For lawyers affected by disaster and never again want the duty of informing clients that their file may have been permanently lost or destroyed, the decision to start scanning and storing electronic file documents seems like a no-brainer too.
There are many good reasons for lawyers to scan and store electronic copies of documents, and preserving all your client information electronically in case a disaster hits is primary among them. However, lawyers who scan and save client documents digitally should be mindful of their duties regarding the safe preservation of electronic client information. Understanding how a good network system operates is important to help preserve confidential client information from accidental dissemination as well as maintaining the data safely, no matter what happens to the firm.
One of the advantages of preserving documents digitally is that the data can easily be stored in multiple locations. A single CD-RW disc can store over 20,000 letter-size documents, and it is a great way to conveniently start preserving electronic documents. But the key to all good backup/restore systems for computer networks is to put some distance between the storage media, and the computer where it came from. Online backup services like Mozy ( www.mozy.com) and Carbonite ( www.carbonite.com) automatically backup your firm’s data offsite and offer secure, encrypted, unlimited file backup for about $5–$50 a month.
Along with finding a secure method of backup, lawyers who store their client documents digitally have an enhanced duty to protect the confidential nature of the information that is being scanned. Network firewalls are more important than ever for these firms in order to prevent unauthorized access to the confidential client information that is being scanned and saved on every file. Scanning and saving client information is a decision by the firm to exponentially grow the amount of electronic data the firm retains regarding their clients; therefore, every precaution should be made to preserve the security of that data including building and testing network firewalls, as well as implementing strong-password policies within the firm to keep out hackers.
A question that is usually foremost on the minds of lawyers implementing a document scanning set-up is, “How long should I keep the paper documents after I have scanned them to the electronic file?” The answer may vary from firm to firm, but it usually depends on the comfort level of the firm, as well as the purpose for the decision to start scanning firm documents.
For most firms, the decision to start scanning file documents is born out of a desire for long-term file preservation and storage convenience. These firms are more likely to amend their file retention policies to allow for the destruction of the paper file soon after the legal matter has concluded and it has been confirmed that all documents relating to the matter have been digitized and stored electronically. Firms that aggressively pursue scanning set-ups to create a near-paperless working environment will routinely scan incoming documents upon arrival at the firm, and retain the paper document in a 30-day folder, whereupon at the end of 30 days the paper document is permanently destroyed.
In all cases, attorneys must examine the length of time the paper document is to be retained after it is scanned into the system, and set forth an established policy for document destruction within the firm. Firm employees should know the difference between original client documents, which are the property of the client and can never be destroyed without the client’s prior written consent, and ordinary file documents. Additionally, the method of document destruction must be one that forever preserves the confidential nature of the file documents. Simply taking the scanned documents to the trash dumpster is not a reasonable method for getting rid of client documents.
Whether you wish to practice law in a near-paperless set-up, or you simply want to scan documents as a top-level backup system for your files, it is important to include safe policies for securing and storing your scanned data. Be mindful that a backup of the data is being stored safely off-site, the network security parameters are intact and up-to-date, and any paper being destroyed is done so confidentially. The rewards of a paperless firm can be great, and included in the reward should also be the peace of mind that your client information is safe no matter what comes blowing through the firm.Todd C. Scott is VP of Member Services at Minnesota Lawyers Mutual, where he counsels lawyers on law practice management and avoiding malpractice. Follow Todd on Twitter @RUatRISK or read his blog at www.attorneysatrisk.com
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