Law Life: Leave packrattery behind in electronic records management

Hoarding is the latest newsworthy “condition,” with national news reports and reality TV shows spotlighting extreme hoarders to demonstrate how crippling and potentially dangerous the hoarding of material objects can be.

There is also such a thing as “digital hoarding,” which is defined by Wikipedia as “collecting files on one’s computer beyond the point of usefulness.” According to Wikipedia, Scientific American remarked that “humanity’s propensity for data collection is growing at a rate faster than their ability to store it.”

Almost all the lawyers I have known prefer never to throw away records of any kind, convinced that the information may come in handy some day. In the paper age, there was a sort of natural, rational (we hope) limit that came with the actual visible space the paper occupied and the costs associated with storage, transport, etc.

But the digital age has created an illusion of almost limitless storage. Just add disk space and you can store so much more! The addition of search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing have added to the myth that no matter how much you store, you’ll always be able to find it again some day, should you need it. I call it a myth because much of what we save is not carefully cataloged, labeled or stored in any decent, searchable format.

We’ve identified the problem: too much data. Too much e-mail, too many documents, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, photos, etc. And digital hoarding is the result, because many of us become so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what we already have that we don’t think it’s possible to ever get control of it.

What to do? Treat electronic files like you would paper files. Delete any unnecessary or duplicative records. If you are daunted by the task of tackling the past, focus on the present and the future.

Take ownership of your records. You are the custodian of client files and those related to the operation of your business, and you should take care not to mix them with personal electronic records.

Create a G-mail, Hotmail, Yahoo or other account in which to store personal records, and direct people with whom you share electronic information to your personal account. Forward to your “personal account” messages you want to save but need to remove from your business address, and delete them from your business account.

Store the things you save into meaningful categories so they will be easier to find at a later time. Don’t use your business e-mail box as a general storage area.

If you are using Microsoft Exchange/Outlook, keep in mind that it was never intended to be a file storage system, and performance and reliability suffers considerably when the mailbox is loaded with messages. Go back periodically to purge records you no longer need; the delete key is your friend.

Create a master records storage location (not your inbox!) and get rid of duplicates. Make sure you back-up your master record location regularly, and get away from the practice of feeling “safe” because you have multiple copies of information in many different areas.

There are two phrases you should never use going forward, as they are “packrattery” enablers: “You never know …” (as in, “You never know when you might need fill in the blank”), and, “Better safe than sorry!” (in the case of digital records storage, there is no safety in numbers).

In summary, it’s time for all of you packrattery, digital-hoarding lawyers out there to take back control of your records. It’s not too late to start. Don’t let the past control the future. You are in charge of your electronic records future.

Master your mailbox and clean up those unnecessary files. You are the master of your digital destiny. Delete, my friends, delete.

Henry B. Chace is the chief information officer at Burns & Levinson in Boston.