Take these basic steps to modern clutter management

Paul Levy is a Chicago lawyer (Georgetown Law School) and president of Eastbank Records Storage, 1200 W. 35th St. The majority of his clients are Chicago law firms.

Any law firm old-timer can talk of the days when the management of records – the memory of your business — meant a card file on a desk and a pile of boxes in a back storeroom. For an up-to-date practice, dealing with the explosive growth of paper and electronic records, that is not good enough.

 Older records should be stored off-site, out of the way but secure, but modern clutter management starts with certain basic questions. What documents should I keep? For how long? Where can they be kept safely? Can I retrieve a document from storage, quickly, when I really need it, like this afternoon?

 Consider a storage center as an extension of your own file room, reasonably close to your office and, if possible, convenient to expressways. Ask if a center allows clients to drop off and pick up their own containers, saving you money in handling fees. Can they take in larger items, such as courtroom displays, evidence exhibits and surplus office furniture?

 Check out each facility that you consider. Does it have electronic monitoring and working security cameras? Are the designated storage facilities safe from dirt, fire and flooding? Are they accessible only by authorized personnel? Do the box racks look solid? Are there climate-controlled areas for electronic records, such as computer discs and medical x-rays? What are the chances for pilferage? Is there a dedicated connection to police and fire authorities? Is there parking? Be clear about exit charges. Some firms charge nothing, but others bury “ransom fees” in the fine print of contracts.

 Most important: Make sure you find a storage firm run by people you can reach right away, not one with a leave-a-message call center. 

 Setting up a storage plan is a good time to review standards. Some documents, such as those relating to wills, should be kept, well, forever. Others have discard dates. Nor is it enough to scan originals. Often, first versions become enriched with useful margin notes that are lost if the hard copy trail is broken. Make a plan. Stick to it. As court cases have noted, the key is to be consistent. Remember that back files may also be needed in matters relating to regulatory compliance and ethical conduct.

 With modern software programs, you can monitor inventory, make service requests or purchase new boxes. Yet, electronic devices can only go so far. Make sure you ask a key question: how fast can they track down a document?

 Normally, storage firms offer next-day delivery or, for an extra fee, later-that-day service. But I know of a situation where a lawyer called in great need at 5 p.m. Pleading his case with vigor, he got the documents that he needed within an hour.

 Now, that is a great off-site legal document storage facility.

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