Expert: There's value in those musty client records

By Edward Poll

The Daily Record Newswire

Lawyers know they have an ethical duty to protect all documents on behalf of clients.

The American Bar Association's Rule of Professional Conduct 1.15 requires that client property and files be "appropriately safeguarded." The rule stipulates no minimum time that this safeguarding must be done. Failure to keep these files safe is a failure in the overall duty to act competently in the best interests of a client.

The rules and specific time periods for storing or destroying client files vary by jurisdiction.

Some states, for example, require a lawyer to securely store a client's file for 10 years after completion or termination of the representation unless lawyer and client make other arrangements.

Often this requirement is seen as a burden that creates nothing but problems for a small law office, where storage space will be at a premium. After all, who wants to spend money for storing and maintaining, whether physically or electronically, "dead" files from past matters?

But what if a change in perception could make a difference? Are old files, after all, really dead?

Rather than looking at the issue in terms of storage, consider old files as sources of information for data mining or client relations management or practice development.

After all, files are only dead if the past client himself or herself is dead. Otherwise, past clients have continuing legal needs.

Why not send them reminder letters and letters announcing changes in the law every year or two? Such letters could spur a phone call or email on a matter that otherwise would never have been raised.

A former client who trusts your judgment will welcome such contact.

Even contacting clients about their existing files is a great marketing opportunity. It allows you to update your contact list, send letters to former clients offering them the option of picking up their file or having it shredded -- and to mention, "Oh, by the way, if we can help you in your current challenges, call us."

It's often surprising how many calls will come in, proving a new variation on an old adage, "out of mind, out of sight." When you as a lawyer get back into clients' sight with such a letter/note, they will remember the things they intended to do with a lawyer and then call you, their latest legal contact.

There are ethical issues involved in making these contacts, particularly through email, but if a client relationship has already been established the concern is much less.

To eliminate any concerns, get full physical and email addresses for the client in the initial intake session, and get permission to make contact and update this information periodically -- a perfect reason to send a reminder letter.

This not only helps ongoing business development, it can have an ultimate payoff should you decide to sell your practice. A database with several thousand current contacts is ample evidence that your firm has considerable goodwill invested in its client base and client loyalty.

A buyer will of course want to review open files that are still active -- but open client contacts, even if no active matter is associated with them, is an excellent indication that the firm has a strong potential work flow and should be valued accordingly.

Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, a law practice management thought leader and contributor to various publications.

Published: Mon, Sep 19, 2011

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