A legal aid organization should establish and maintain an electronic file in its case management system or a hard-copy file for each of its cases, which records all material facts and transactions, provides a detailed chronological record of work done, and sets forth a planned course of action. In addition, an organization should have policies regarding retention of client files and information data, as well as policies that are consistent with ethical and legal responsibilities regarding whether and how client information may be shared with external entities with clients' informed consent.
Electronic or hard-copy case files should organize critical elements of a case in a logical and coherent fashion. Each should contain the following essential information:
- An indication of the options available to and selected by the client, and a statement of the client's objective;
- A full chronological record of client interviews; adversary contacts; witness interviews; field investigations; and records searches, including dates, names of persons contacted, important facts ascertained and important statements, and concessions and allegations made;
- An indication of the primary language for clients whose preferred language is not English, interpreters and translators used, and copies of translated materials;
- Copies of all written correspondence, pleadings, legal memoranda, legal research, and other documents representing work done on the case, organized systematically for ready reference;
- Either a hardcopy or an electronic version of electronic correspondence used;
- A specific plan with a clear delineation of tasks and a timetable with deadlines for completion of each task, including any relevant statute of limitations, consistent with the complexity of the case;
- A record of time spent on the case adequate to support any request for attorneys' fees, if appropriate, and to meet the organization's management needs as well as any requirements imposed by the organization's funding sources; and
- A closing memorandum that summarizes the work done for the client and the results achieved for closed cases.
Standard Client Files
For those cases for which it has direct ethical and professional responsibility, an organization should maintain standard case files that facilitate transfer of cases among the organization's practitioners and encourage good lawyering habits. A thorough, self-contained file that records progress on each case in a standardized fashion eases review of the representation by supervisors. New practitioners should be fully trained in the established written procedures to ensure uniform file maintenance.
Electronic case management systems ensure uniform file maintenance and provide the capacity for quick retrieval of files from any location. These systems also permit easy access to files to facilitate supervisory review of a practitioner's work and sharing of files among multiple practitioners who may be working
An organization should integrate electronic and hardcopy files so that all documents and records, including records of telephone, text, and email conversations, can either be found in one place or are appropriately linked, so that all practitioners working on the case have immediate access to all pertinent information. Organizations should also have systems in place to ensure that all electronic files are backed-up on a regular basis to protect against accidental loss.
Outside attorneys providing representation for clients referred by the organization should organize files for clients referred to them in conformance with the established procedures of the practitioner or firm handling the case. Outside attorneys or law firms that represent a large number of clients under contract with an organization may be expected to conform to the organization's policy regarding standard case files.
Transfer and Sharing of Case Files and Data
Staff often find themselves responsible for cases they did not initiate. This occurs because of staff turnover,or temporary absences for illness or vacation. Complete, current files make it possible for a new practitioner to take up a case with minimum delay or disruption to the client relationship. Electronic case management systems and the integration of electronic and hardcopy files make the transfer of cases to a new practitioner relatively simple and seamless, and they help ensure that the new practitioner has all the case information necessary to effectively represent the client.
Procedures for case transfer should be designed to minimize the impact of the transfer on the client and the quality of the work. Whenever possible, the person who previously handled the case should prepare a succinct transfer memorandum analyzing the case, directing attention to the next steps to be taken and target dates to be met. Clients should be notified immediately of the transfer of their cases and should be ensured that their interests are fully protected. They should be told the name and contact information for the new practitioner with whom they should communicate and be given an opportunity to meet with the new practitioner as soon as feasible.
An organization may wish to develop case protocols, benchmarks, and checklists to guide practitioners in handling repetitive, routine legal problems. Protocols set forth the basic issues to be addressed and the essential steps to be taken in routine cases. While helpful, protocols should only be used by the practitioner as a road map to evaluate the client's particular objectives in a positive and creative way, given the circumstances in the case, and to test for new and unique issues. Protocols may also be designed to draw attention to common fact situations or legal issues, so that the organization may consider such problems in the priority setting process and direct the allocation of its resources to the efficient and economic resolution of such recurring problems. Benchmarks set out expected, realistic outcomes that should be achieved in addressing commonly recurring legal issues. Benchmarks may vary among offices, given the law and practice in each jurisdiction. Checklists can be helpful in ensuring that all steps have been taken and all required documents have been prepared, submitted, and included in the client's file.