How long must a lawyer keep client records?

Lawyers have two duties of care concerning client records. 

First, current client records  must be kept secure. Keep backup copies of all electronic records, as well as crucial paper records such as master files, time and billing records, court dates and appointments, wills, powers of attorney and corporate records at a secure and specially designed off-site location.  Larger firms should have several secure storage facilities.  Each State has its own rules concerning the retention time required.

Second, lawyers must retain, indefinitely, the valuable property that belongs to clients where they are unable to return such property to the client. Valuable client property includes documents such as original notes or securities, original wills, settlement agreements and other original documents.  

The best approach, of course, is to return such property and not pay the storage costs.  Consider a provision in your engagement agreement that allows for return of the valuable documents and property to a last known address at the conclusion of a matter or by a date certain (e.g., in estate planning matters), whichever first occurs. 

An alternative is a formal letter to clients directing them to pick up their files within a stated time, say 30 days.  If that doesn’t happen you should still keep these files for two years—and some jurisdictions require a longer storage period.


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