How Long Do You Need to Keep Closed Files?

A fair question posed recently on the NW Sidebar blog.

As in Oregon, there is no rule for file retention in Washington. The only exception? Trust accounting records: five years from termination of representation in Oregon; seven years in Washington.

Guidance for Oregon Lawyers

So where can Oregon lawyers go for answers?  The best resource can be found on the Professional Liability Fund website.  Select Practice Management > Forms > File Management > File Retention and Destruction Guidelines.

Files should be kept for a minimum of 10 years as protection against legal malpractice claims. To learn more about ethical recordkeeping practices, see Ethical Guidelines for Client Files.

Guidance for Washington Lawyers

The NW Sidebar post suggests a four step approach:

  • Start with the Guide to Best Practices for Client File Retention and Management on the WSBA website
  • Check with your Washington malpractice insurance carrier
  • Consider the nature of each case (some immigration cases may be “live” 20 years from the time of initial representation)
  • Weigh the possibility of malpractice or discipline claims

In Oregon, the latter drives the minimum 10 year retention recommendation.

Multi-Jurisdictional Practices

Lawyers who practice in both states (or other states) may choose to keep files in conformance with each jurisdiction’s recommended practices or apply the strictest retention requirement.  Universal retention practices are easier to follow and enforce. Jurisdiction-specific retention practices may allow for earlier disposal of files.

What to do Now

Every firm should have documented file retention practices and a file closing checklist. Need a place to start? Consult the Guide to Best Practices for Client File Retention and Management on the WSBA website or use the Professional Liability Fund retention guidelines referenced above and the PLF sample File Closing Checklist.  [Available on the PLF website at Practice Management > Forms > File Management.]

Creating and using a file closing checklist ensures consistency and makes the file retention process easier for lawyers and staff.

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis -2017

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