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Vol. 33, No. 1

Save? Toss? Backup? Document retention in a ‘paperless’ world

by Dan Kittay

Back in the B.C. (before computers) era, document management and retention was a lot easier—you typed something, made a copy, and kept the copy in a file folder. When the folder got full, you shipped the documents to a storage area, where you probably never saw them again. And even though you likely couldn’t find them if you had to, it was comforting somehow to know they were there.

These days, when correspondence is often keyed into and distributed by a computer and may never actually exist on paper, the potential for tracking its whereabouts is easier, but in practice, it requires a new mindset.

“What do you keep, how long do you keep it, why do you keep it, and when do you get rid of it?” asks Toby Brown, head of knowledge management at Fulbright & Jaworski LLP in Houston.

“Whether it’s paper or electronic information, it doesn’t matter what form it’s in. You have to do something to preserve it through its life, and to take care of it at the end of its life,” says Brown, who was formerly the director of communications at the Utah State Bar.

Those involved in thinking about and implementing policies to manage information flow note that there are two related concepts that can apply to how bar associations manage their document flow—document management and records management.

Document management is a set of rules that govern how documents will be stored, says Jim Calloway, management assistance program director for the Oklahoma Bar Association.

Once the rules have been determined, “you have to decide, to what extent are we going to implement them by policies only, and to what extent are we going to implement them by policies aided by technology?” Calloway says.

Technology in this case means some kind of document management system, which usually consists of software that helps classify documents by various criteria so they can be stored and later retrieved more efficiently.

“There are document management systems that you can buy off the shelf that will assist or coerce people to behave in certain ways,” he says. “You could have a system that wouldn’t let someone save a document on the system until they had answered some questions about it: What kind of document it is, etc.” The system can be programmed to file documents in a certain place, give them certain kinds of names, and even queue them for deletion at a certain date, depending on the answers to the questions.

Records management is a broader field and can include document management as part of a policy. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines records management as “the field of management responsible for the efficient and systematic control of the creation, receipt, maintenance, use, and disposition of records, including the processes for capturing and maintaining evidence of and information about business activities and transactions in the form of records.”

ISO further defines records as “information created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business.”

Why does this matter for bars?

While that may sound like something more relevant to law firms, all bar associations have some records—such as financial and human resources information—that must be kept for specified periods of time, notes Catherine Sanders Reach, director of the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Mandatory bars may also have information that may be needed at a later date, depending on the state in which they are located.

Beyond the legal requirements, there are a number of good reasons to adopt some sort of document management policy and keep documents stored in a central place, Reach says. “The beauty of using a system that enforces a way of saving documents to a central repository instead of on individual hard drives is that it allows people to keep up on versions,” she notes.

When documents are “e-mailed around and around,” it is hard for people collaborating on a project to be sure they are working on the most recent version, she explains. If the document is stored in a central place where all who are working on it can access it, it is easy to say “the document is here,” and provide people a link to the location.

That can have real financial impact on an association. A 2005 study by research firm IDC showed that “version control issues” can cost a company as much as $3,300 per year in time wasted for each worker with a $60,000 salary.

A central location for documents also provides a place to store templates and sample documents. Many documents that a typical bar uses are variations of previous documents with new information, Reach notes. By using templates, “bars don’t have to reinvent the wheel” each time. The same IDC study showed that “recreating content” can cost the company $4,501 in wasted time per worker.

Document management can also be helpful to an association when employees leave the bar. “When people leave, they walk out the door, and if they didn’t have good document storage practices or file-naming conventions, what they know walks out the door with them.

“You want to be able to have everyone, in a standard way, saving documents to a central location. If someone leaves after 10 years and they’ve created a lot of documents, you may not know which is a draft or which is a final if they haven’t used good file-naming conventions. It may take you forever to sort it out, if you can even sort it out,” Reach says.

There are various software packages available for document management, ranging from no-cost, open source versions (with little or no tech support unless you pay for it), to those costing many thousands of dollars. Factors such as staff size, expertise of the IT department, and budget will help determine which is appropriate for a given bar.

The importance of backup

Another good reason for storing documents in one place is that it makes backing them up easier, Reach says. Rather than needing a system to copy documents from each user’s computer, the backup system copies them from the server.

From a business continuity standpoint, it is crucial that all documents required for a bar to function be backed up, so that if a disaster (think Katrina, or the recent floods in Iowa) occurs, a bar could be up and running in a short period of time with minimal loss of information.

Just backing up documents, though, is not enough, Reach says. You need to think of other software that would be timely or costly to replace. “There’s so much software that we buy these days that you download,” she explains. “If you don’t have your license keys, and you don’t have disks to reinstall, it’s going to take you a very long time to get your system back up and running. You have to think about things like file-level, server-level, and your Exchange server.

“What if it all crashed and burned? What steps would you have to take to get it back up and running? If all you’re doing is backing up files, that’s great, but a Word file doesn’t do much without the software to run it.”

The issue of backup raises the question of the best way to do it. “Backup is not a single solution,” says Fulbright & Jaworski’s Brown. “You should be looking at layers of backup.”

Examples Brown cites of onsite backup include using a storage area network and regularly burning copies of files to DVD. The question of offsite, online backup as a supplement to onsite backup has become more important in recent years, as the technology has improved and broadband Internet access has become more widespread. If you only have your backups stored in your office, if your office is destroyed in a disaster, your backups will be destroyed with it. All of the people interviewed for this article agree that online backup is at a point where it should be considered part of a bar’s over-all backup strategy, but there are some cautions.

The Oklahoma Bar Association is among a growing number of bars that have endorsed an online backup service for their members, says the OBA’s Calloway. “I think it is imperative that we all go to online backup, including our home computers,” he says. “While many lawyers are rightfully concerned about the ethical implications of sending client information across the Internet and placing it in the hands of third parties, in reality, there’s a greater danger in not backing up your client data appropriately.”

Calloway says it is important to use an online backup service that encrypts your information before it is sent to the service’s computers. That greatly reduces the chances of its being read in transit or even when it resides on the remote computers.

When looking for an online backup service, ABA’s Reach cautions that bars should stay away from free or very low-cost services. “Never rely on free services for mission-critical functions,” she stresses.

Whatever strategy you adopt, Calloway suggests that it be as easy as possible to adhere to. “Whatever you do,” he says, “make sure you do the backup.”