Book Review: ‘The Lawyer’s Guide to Records Management and Retention’

by Jeffrey L. Weeden and Claire Parsons on August 29, 2012

In The Lawyer’s Guide to Records Management and Retention, authors George Cunningham and John Montaña provide a clear and comprehensive guide to the creation and maintenance of an effective and efficient records management and retention program. They emphasize that although information is paramount to lawyers, a rare few practitioners properly manage this critical resource. The book makes clear that if properly implemented, a well-organized records management and retention system can result in better client service, enhance attorney support, help ensure legal and ethics compliance, diminish risk, save time, and reduce costs.

The first two chapters emphasize the importance and benefits of a responsible records management program to all attorneys and staff members of a law firm. The authors explain that devoting sufficient time and funds to the program will lead to a new level of efficiency and to a significant reduction of costs. “Simply stated, if both hard-copy and electronic files are in good shape, records will be easier to find and use, client service will be better, we will be more productive, and all will thrive and prosper.” Knowledge management also is discussed, because many of these records “represent a law office’s second most valuable asset after its lawyers.”

Chapter 3 outlines a lawyer’s legal and ethical responsibilities regarding the management of records and information. The Rules of Professional Conduct, specific laws, and necessary procedures all provide constraints on how a lawyer must handle files and other information. Relevant rules and laws vary by jurisdiction, but they all underscore the importance of maintaining the client’s interest during and after representation, both to avoid malpractice and to better defend against malpractice claims.

One of the key components to a records management program is a records retention schedule. This type of schedule allows firms to keep files only as long as is necessary and, when appropriate, to properly dispose of them. Chapters 4 and 5 explain the components of and steps for creating a successful records retention program. The authors detail the costs and risks of the improper disposal of records and the dangers of keeping records too long. The authors detail rules and authorities that must be considered when developing the program, along with how to handle client and administrative files.

Chapters 6 through 8 delve into some of the logistical aspects of a records management program. The authors first explain how to choose either a manual or automated index (including treatment of Electronic Document Management Systems), which is a hierarchy of specific terms that allows records to be more easily located. Next, the reader learns how to organize, index, title, and group files to help facilitate retrieval and consistency. Records management software is discussed (and explained in more detail in Chapter 9). Also covered is how to set up file rooms for easy access and how to educate and train firm personnel to understand how the program is organized. Cunningham and Montaña then explain how to handle and file electronic documents (which can be more important than paper files).

Chapter 9 covers systems and technology and how to make an educated decision regarding whether to purchase records management software. The authors provide helpful tips for buying commercial off-the-shelf software and give advice on how to deal with the vendors that sell it.

The next chapter addresses staffing and training, including the kind and number of staff members that will be necessary to each firm’s records management program. Chapter 10 also covers the training and habituating of these staff members (or the decision to outsource instead). A good records management program is one in which the staff and lawyers not only are well informed on how to use everything but also are aware of how important the new program is to the firm.

The final chapter provides clear and helpful steps for actually implementing a records management and retention program. The authors re-emphasize the advantages of implementation for the firm and review the key components of a successful program, including organizational structure and training concerns.

The final portion of the book contains ten appendices, each of which is helpful regarding some aspect of the records management program. This section includes sample documents, checklists, and a reading list. Also included is a CD-ROM containing digital copies of appendices material.

Although lawyers and staff members may be tempted to set aside records management in favor of billable work, records management is very important to a law firm. This book is a clearly written and the text is comprehensive. Readers will come away from it well-informed on the creation and maintenance of an efficient records management program.

Reproduced by permission. ©2012 Colorado Bar Association, 41 The Colorado Lawyer 123 (September 2012). All rights reserved.

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