File Management

Whether you manage your documents electronically, keep paper files, or use a hybrid system, it is imperative that your files are organized and include all that they should. Managing the file begins as soon as the file is opened and should be a continuous process.

Every file requires:

  • a file-opening sheet;
  • a system for document organization; and
  • a file-closing sheet upon completion.

 

File-Opening Forms

Although formats vary, file-opening forms should provide for:

  • client name(s), including alias;
  • client’s addresses and contact information, including alternate contact information (for mail and electronic technologies);
  • client identification and/or verification, as required;
  • the names of opposing parties or other parties of interest;
  • the name and contact information of counsel for the opposing parties or other parties of interest;
  • the opening date for the file;
  • limitation dates; and
  • other information, such as file retention instructions, billing, etc.

 

System for Document Organization

Every matter should have its own file and it is critical that all documents, correspondence, and records related to the matter should be retained in the matter file. Keeping well-ordered and complete files helps you or, in your absence, a colleague, assistant, or successor to provide competent and timely service to your client. It is also key to managing the risk of missing a step, a deadline, or a key piece of evidence as you handle the file. Finally, if you do need to defend a professional negligence claim, your file is invaluable in enabling to you respond to the claim.

Examples of documents and records that should be included in a file are:

  • file opening form,
  • client screening form,
  • retainer letter,
  • file checklists,
  • records of instructions and conversations,
  • notes of meetings and conversations, whether by phone or in-person,
  • copies of electronic communications,
  • client documents,
  • correspondence,
  • contracts,
  • pleadings,
  • research,
  • memos, and
  • file closing form.

This list is non-exhaustive. Each file will have its own nuances. The point remains, however, that everything related to the file should be on the file.

Other tips for document organization include:

  • Use distinct sub-files for matters such as correspondence, pleadings, memoranda of law, searches, documents, and other classes of paper where appropriate.
  • If keeping paper files, ensure loose paper is fastened to the file by using document brads or something similar.
  • Date stamp documents when received.
  • Ensure you keep notes of all significant communications and conversations, including reference to date, time, and the names of the parties involved.
  • Ensure you document all settlements offered and rejected and consider having your client sign them.
  • Carefully document situations where your client refuses to follow your advice.

 

File-Closing and File-Closing Forms

The file-closing form should contain information such as:

  • the name of the file;
  • the date the file was closed;
  • who closed the file;
  • a file stripping checklist indicating what if anything was removed from the file and where it was sent or placed; and
  • instructions respecting storage and eventual destruction of the file.

It might also be worthwhile to incorporate a checklist into your file-closing sheet to make sure essential tasks have occurred. Those tasks might include:

  • Have the responsible lawyer review the file to be certain no outstanding matters remain (e.g., making sure all undertakings have been taken care of). If outstanding matters remain, don’t close the file. If no matters remain, have the responsible lawyer sign-off that the file has been reviewed.
  • Send a file closing letter to the client.
  • Determine which documents are to be returned to the client and document that they have been returned (including having the client acknowledge receipt of the returned items).
  • Provide the client with a final bill and make certain the bill and all disbursements have been paid.
  • Make sure all the proper storage and retention dates are entered in the file and in your file storage system.
  • Strip the file on closing. When it comes time to do this, review the suggestions in Felicia S. Folk and Jackie Morris, Law Society of British Columbia, “Closed Files: Retention and Disposition,” as well as the suggestions in the Law Society of Ontario’s “Guide to Retention and Destruction of Closed Client Files for Lawyers”. Both resources provide good tips on how to strip a file on closing, what material should go to the client, what material should be destroyed, what material should be retained, etc.
  • Make sure the file is properly coded and filed within your system as a closed file.