Many malpractice claims could be avoided if attorneys would get in the habit of documenting their files. We all agree that correspondence and documents should be timely filed and in some sort of order, but what about those handwritten notes that never seem to find their way to the file?
How often have you searched a file, your office, your secretary's office and all areas in between looking for those notes you took during a phone conversation or at a conference with a client? Or, how many times have you forgotten to follow through on a promise to a client because you failed to make a note of the conversation?
When opening a file, obtain all the information available at that time. Prepare a client information sheet which contains all the necessary information on the client and his/her case. This sheet should be kept in the file at all times.
Take notes of all phone conversations. Have preprinted forms or use a yellow pad and keep it by the phone. Once you've made the notes you could give them to your secretary to be filed. If you like to look at the file while you're discussing the case you could keep a blank sheet in the file to be used for notations. As the yellow sheet becomes filled, simply place another blank one directly on top of it.
Include in your notations any advice given as well as any promises made. Also, document any instructions or information given by the client. An example would be if a client informed you by phone that the client's CPA would file the tax returns or if the client was going to file the returns. Make a notation in the file and then follow up with a letter.
Do not make unprofessional remarks about your client in the file. Unless you weed through the file prior to returning it to your client, the client will notice the remarks and, of course, this will not promote good client relations. This is especially so if the client is disengaging you for reasons other than the conclusion of the case.
Record activities attempted even though not accomplished. Make notations in the file of the number of times you tried to contact the client, witnesses, etc., and how that contact was attempted (by phone, letter or personal visit). If a client later alleges that you failed to maintain contact, your file will prove just the opposite. You will have a complete record of the attempts made.
Keep your files current and in proper order. Do not let filing stack up if at all possible. Locating various needed items will be easier if you keep your files in chronological order. You may also find it helpful to separate the file into various sections if at all possible (i.e., correspondence, documents, notes, fee statements, etc.).
Any information which goes into the file should be dated. If you receive enclosures with a piece of correspondence, mark the date received on the enclosures so that you can easily see which enclosure came with which piece of correspondence.
If you copy a letter or document to the client or any other party indicate so on the file copy.
The attorneys in a firm should determine the length of time that closed files will be maintained by the firm. The same time limitations should be adhered to by all members of the firm.