Editor's Note: This opinion was originally published as RPC 209 (Revised).
Disposing of Closed Client Files
Opinion provides guidelines for the disposal of closed client files.
Attorney A has been in practice for 20 years. Whenever he completes a matter for a client, he closes the client's file and retains it in his office. Attorney A has run out of space to store files in his office. The expense of renting storage space to store files is prohibitive. May Attorney A dispose of the closed client files?
Yes, subject to certain requirements.
The original file belongs to the client and, because of the general fiduciary duty to safeguard the property of a client, a lawyer should store a client's file in a secure location where client confidentiality can be maintained. See Rule 4 and Rule 10.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and RPC 79.
With the consent of the client, a closed file may be destroyed at any time. Absent the client's consent to disposal of a file, a closed file must be retained for a minimum of six years after the conclusion of the representation. Six years is the required minimum period for retaining a closed client file because this retention period is consistent with retention period for records of client property set forth in Rule 10.2(b). Of course, the statute of limitations may require the retention of a closed file for more than six years.
If six years have not passed since a client's file became inactive, the file may only be destroyed with the consent of the client or, after notice to the client, the client fails to retrieve the file. The client should be contacted and advised that the lawyer intends to destroy the file unless the client retrieves the file or, within a reasonable period of time, directs that the file be transferred to another lawyer. See RPC 16. If the client indicates that he or she does not wish to retrieve the file, the lawyer may dispose of the file. On the other hand, if the client indicates that he or she would like to retrieve the file, the client must be given a reasonable opportunity to do so. If the client fails to retrieve the file within a reasonable period of time, the file may be destroyed. RPC 16. If the client fails to retrieve the file after notice, the lawyer should review the file and retain any items in the file that belong to the client or contain information useful in the assertion or defense of the client's position in a matter for which the statute of limitations has not expired. See RPC 16. These items should be retained until the client consents to their destruction or retention is no longer required by law or necessary to protect the client's rights.
After the passage of six years, the lawyer is not required to notify the client that the file will be destroyed. However, if not previously reviewed and purged of the client's possessions, the lawyer should review the file and retain any items that belong to the client. These items should be returned to the client or retained in a secure place until retrieved by the client or until the items are deemed abandoned and escheat to the state under Chap. 116B of the North Carolina General Statutes. The remaining records in the file may be destroyed.
A record should be maintained of all destroyed client files. RPC 16.
Do closed client files have to be destroyed or disposed of in a particular manner?
No particular method of destroying files is prescribed by the Rules of Professional Conduct. However, if closed files are destroyed, the method chosen must preserve client confidentiality. See Rule 4. RPC 133 ruled that a law firm may recycle its waste paper if the responsible attorney can "ascertain that those persons or entities responsible for the disposal of waste paper employ procedures which effectively minimize the risk that confidential information might be disclosed." When client files are destroyed, similar precautions should be taken.
Attorney A has in storage not only the files of his own clients but also the client files of lawyers who were formerly his law partners. What should Attorney A do with these client files?
Although the files belong to clients of lawyers other than Attorney A, because Attorney A has retained possession of these files, he has a fiduciary obligation to see that the files are properly handled. A former client is most likely to look for the attorney who previously handled his or her matter when trying to locate a legal file. Therefore, Attorney A may return these files to the original lawyers. Alternatively, Attorney A may dispose of the files in a manner that is consistent with the guidelines set forth in this opinion.