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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: January 2023

Alas, Poor Files, I Knew Them Well (With Apologies to Lovers of Hamlet)

Stanley Peter Jaskiewicz


  • Cleaning out decades of paper files from your legal practice can have you pondering the value of your past work, the cost of digital storage, and the ethical considerations of file disposal.
  • You'll also reflect on the evolution of the changing tools and methods used by attorneys to manage their work.
Alas, Poor Files, I Knew Them Well (With Apologies to Lovers of Hamlet) Eweka

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I recently had to confront a reminder of my mortality  – while cleaning out file drawers.

After 37 years at my firm (and 25 in our current space), our management “suggested” that I think about cleaning out file drawers.

While no move is imminent, or even planned, the volume of paper I had stored away was immense.

You see, I began practicing before everyone had a computer on their desk.  As hard as it may be to imagine today, email didn’t exist, except for computer nerds.

So how did anyone practice law?

Lawyers, paralegals, and secretaries actually exchanged paper – lots of it. 

We used US Mail.  For truly big deals, an overnight courier. 

FedEx ZapMail, a fax service, was (for a very brief time) a technological breakthrough.

As a result, I now have several feet of carefully preserved redwell folders, bulging with documents and correspondence from what are now long-forgotten deals, all collecting dust in my files.

It clearly was time to move on to the next “deal.”  In real life that meant an office move.

But the drawers had to be emptied.  The files had to go. 

Reviewing the dust laden contents of all those file drawers brought Scrooge-like epiphanies. 

(As a long-time sufferer of allergies, it also brought a lot of non-COVID-19 sneezing and sniffling.)

Like the proverbial ghost of Christmas past, I recalled – with a chill - contentious deals, and all-nighters, “from long, long ago” – that I had long forgotten (or chosen to block out).

Since I did this work in late November, I faced my own “A Christmas Carol” experience, complete with metaphorical ghosts of long-dead clients and opposing counsel.

Although Dickens had written a timeless story, the files I had created were different. 

Their contents were the result of countless billable hours of late-night work, expensive cab rides home, thousands of dollars of legal fees, and, most importantly, many (perhaps too many) days of my life.

Yet they had all become worthless, the ephemera of a law firm.

Technically, our record retention policy dictated disposal of most of those papers – years ago. 

I quickly filled up several recycling bins fixing that oversight – but still have many “files to go” (literally, and, metaphorically, with apologies to Robert Frost). 

I did, however, save what was still useful. 

As the parent of an Eagle Scout, and a Scout leader myself, I have long recognized that one point of the Scout Law, “A Scout is thrifty,” works as well for a business’s bottom line as in a youth group.

In rare cases, I had to reshelve an original document needed for a continuing client or relating to an ongoing matter (such as a parcel of real property).

In most cases, however, the only useful items were the binder clips and folders.  We could recycle them for new use with the few files we create on paper today (albeit with a new, clean label).

Unlike in the past, however, disposing of the paper did not eliminate the files’ contents.

Instead, over the years some of the old files had been saved digitally. 

Sometimes they were even properly profiled in our document management system, to allow them to be found should anyone ever look for them. 

(The accumulation of dust showed that we hadn’t looked much in some time.)

But I quickly realized that we didn’t need to pay even the minimal cost of electronic retention of the great majority of my old files.  

The matters had long been dead, never to return.

There was a positive result – we now have lots of empty drawers.  If paper documents ever have a comeback, we are ready for them. 

(Perhaps we can store corporate seals and pre-printed corporate kits in all those empty drawers.)

However,  more philosophically, let me step back from the housekeeping issues, to the metaphorical.

Is there a deeper meaning to draw from recycling the tangible remains of most of my life’s work?

Were all those late nights and stressful deals worth it in retrospect?

The answer was discouraging.  I had just discarded thousands of dollars of billable hours’ work - not that many years after I had created it in the first place.

But like Ebenezer and the Grinch, I had my own epiphany.

Our work in creating all those files had been very meaningful to our clients.

Deals were closed, and clients grew with our help.

For the most part, those deals were profitable to the firm – which compensated me well enough that I could devote time to causes I loved.

Despite the demands of my practice, I have always blocked out time to spend with my family.

Since my son has a disability, that led me to choose to devote myself to advocacy work.  Why limit my efforts to my son when what I have done for him could help other persons with disabilities?

I have also served many nonprofit organizations, often as a board member or officer.

Some of them even honored me – giving me a further platform to promote their causes in stories about the awards in local media, and, in our social media age, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

That visibility promotes their mission and attracts further support (volunteers, as well as donations).

Of course, I always made sure to mention my firm’s name.  We did well by doing good, to quote a cliché.

But nonetheless my wholesale disposal of paper files raised practical questions.

How much will digital storage of the saved files cost going forward?  When should we purge them as we did with the paper files? 

Should files that had once been labeled “Confidential Attorney Client Privilege, Confidential Attorney Work Product” be recycled with yesterday’s trash?  Do we have an ethical obligation to shred them?

(Since the file belongs to the client, I believe that ethical rules require that it be returned to the client.  See Pennsylvania Bar Association Committee on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility Formal Opinion 2007-100, “Client Files – Rights of Access, Possession and Copying, Along with Retention Considerations”, available here.

But that rule raises even more practical questions. 

Can we find the client?  Will the cost of even trying to return it exceed any residual value of the file, to the client or to anyone else?

For files already saved digitally, will anyone be willing to comb through voluminous electronic files in the same way I cleaned my file drawers?  

If the electronic files are themselves old, do we still have technology capable of viewing them?

Moreover, as a colleague noted, some attorneys even older than I, really, really like the security of having paper files for their clients’ matters. 

But should they be dragged back into the paperless brave new world of 1995 kicking and screaming?

To quote a noted gray-haired leader, those concerns are all above my pay grade.

For now, like old Ebenezer, I choose to rejoice that I can still fill many files, be they electronic, or paper, with the results of my current work.