Files and the Lawyer
Hey there! Yes, you. Lawyer? Client? (Both?) Doesn’t matter, for if you fall into either category, my words about files and storage matter.
When I started practicing law, 40 years ago this Friday, we had carbon paper, with Olivetti 351s on the near horizon. (A screen about three-eighths of an inch high and maybe three inches long, affording a typist a brief opportunity to correct a typo before the print hit the page.) And, everything that mattered got saved in a manila folder.
The firm with which I practiced from 1983 until 1999 had off-site storage, along with an interior room – Purgatory, to me – where we kept finished matters until the room filled up. Then, off-site. How long in off-site storage? Until the client requested the file or … does Out.Of.Site.Out.Of.Mind resonate?
Now, I work without paper almost exclusively. Off to court and I need something in front of me? Well, I haven’t been inside a courtroom since November 3, 2020 but, if that happens again – likely – I print what I need. And for phone, Teams, or Zoom encounters, that’s why we have two monitors.
In 2017 – I remember the day, because I taught an ethics program and, then, flew to London – a lawyer posed a question about returning a file. He had a scanned file and a paper copy. Client could not access copies from the disc, and the lawyer didn’t want to part with the several Banker Boxes. “Give ‘im the effing paper, for f***’s sake, and you’ll have less boxes to store.” Lawyer was not buying what I was selling. My delivery, maybe?
Then there’s the whole debate about keeping original wills, to get the probate business when the client dies. (Discussed previously, here.) Bottom line: get the documents to the client.
I write about files because my daughter and son-in-law arrive on Wednesday for a brief visit. Checking up on me after not seeing me for 21 months, I think. They want to deal with The Dish Room – the bedroom fill of my mom’s china from my mom that must find its way out of my house – and the garage, still full of the detritus of my prior life. Nice people!!!
So, files? I moved the 30 or so Banker Boxes full of files out of the garage. Accumulated paper from lots of years. A bit of it matters; much doesn’t, either because it never did, or because time passes. The Arizona Attorney Ethics Advisory Committee issued Opinion No. EO-19-0009 about a year ago. Basically, lawyers must keep necessary records, for the purpose of providing effective representation and to allow someone else to take over if the lawyer gets fired, quits, or dies. In addition, the client has a right to a copy of the file. (If you’re a lawyer, read this Ethics Opinion, NOW! If you’re a lawyer and you’re fighting with a client about file issues, stop it! NOW!)
Curiously, the literature which deals with clients and files focuses on what the lawyer must give the client. Knowing about the drip, drip, drip of thousands of dollars, spent over 17 years to store files we could have returned or shredded, I focus on getting the paper away from me. Or, more accurately, I focus on that issue when I advise lawyers, and the impending Garage Purge focuses me, now.
If I have been privileged to serve you, you may be hearing from me soon. You will have a choice: let me get the paper to you or tell me I should arrange for shredding. (One more option: for smaller files, we can scan and shred.) Reality? You already have much of what sits in the boxes: documents we sent to you, records you gave to me, and material that may have been provided to both of us. As for what you might not have, much of it can be replicated: pleadings sit electronically on courthouse servers, and we have much of what involves your matter scanned.
We talk often in this world of ours about waste, and what to do with it. What my profession generates lacks the half life of nuclear reactor residue but turning printed paper into a recycled product helps. And, if I can get rid of most of 30 boxes – and what Cate and Zack will take and toss – maybe I can park my car indoors.