Technology and Records Keeping in Law Office Management
Technically a part of file management, records management specifically carries a level of importance that other files a law office might have do not. Most records are guaranteed to contain data pertaining to a client or case, and they are often accessible only to certain individuals. There are also records that contain information about the firm itself, including data about its finances, employees, structure, and operations. Efficient management of such documents is often vital to the continuance of a law office because they can serve as proof of their actions.

Knowledge management, on the other hand, seems like something that cannot be easily done. After all, isn't knowledge something that does not take on a physical form? How can it be managed along with documents and records? Knowledge management often refers to the knowledge that staff members have in relation to their work. 1 It's a business concept designed to ensure that human intelligence is used to the best of its ability and that it is maintained as well as anything else. It can be supplemented, either through actions or with the assistance of technology, and can sometimes be more accessible and accurate than other options.

As with other areas of management, knowledge and records management is a valued part of law office management. Recognizing the key aspects and understanding the factors involved can allow law offices to remain organized and efficient. This article will look at what can be done to properly manage knowledge and records within a law office, the different options available, and the associated problems. It will also discuss the issue of updating, which is a necessary component for both knowledge and record management.

Why Stay Organized?

Knowledge and records management may seem like another task that needs to be done for law office management, but it is rather useful for a law office to stay as organized as possible. The following, similar to other law office management aspects, are just a few of the reasons why staying organized with knowledge and records management is needed.

Usage-Knowledge and records are informational assets within a law office and they are used in some capacity every day. It's always wise to make sure that you know where the things that you use on a regular basis are. You put your car keys in the same place when you're not using them, rather than tossing them out into your house at random, because you will need to use them again, correct? Maintaining a level of organization for the sake of being able to continue using those items is often necessary.

Accessibility-Things cannot be used if they are not easily accessible, even if their location is known. Following the example of car keys: you know they are somewhere in the house, you just need to sift through everything else in order to find them. It's the same with knowledge and records. Accessibility is such an important factor because it can make a difference when things are time-sensitive. A law office's full schedule makes it difficult for staff to take their time for things, even if it's related to a case. Effective management allows for the organization that makes such information easily accessible to those who need it.

Structure-If there is disorder with one element of a law office's structure, the rest of the system is going to be affected by it. It's like a domino effect, where disorder spreads throughout the office's management structure and allows for damaging habits to develop. Management strategies and tools, when used properly, act as preventative measures against the development of such problems. Since knowledge and records are involved in almost every part of a law office's operational structure, problems with their management can affect more than just those documents.

What Options Are Available?

As with other law office management elements, there are methods available for knowledge and records management that make the process easier. Again, some are going to be better than others are and not all options are going to be universally effective for every law office that uses them.

Have a Legal Library-Also known as law libraries, legal libraries are one way for law offices to take their knowledge and put it in a physical location within the office. 2 It's a method that makes a law office's knowledge accessible to all of its staff members and, in some cases, their clients. Libraries can be modified with new information and old or irrelevant information can be purged. 

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Use a File System-Records are still files, which means they can be included in a law office's filing system that it uses for the rest of its documents. They also can-and should-be kept separate from other file types due to the content of some records. Records can be filed in a digital or paper format, or with some kind of combination of the two. As with file management, they should be backed-up, properly stored, and have some security measures put in place for their access.

Use Technology Where and When Applicable-Technology truly is a valuable and needed tool for law office management. It can be used for some aspects of knowledge and records management, depending on the set of a law office. Using technology, like software, is going to be easier with records management than it is for knowledge management. Digital records can be stored and cataloged with software programs, which often allow for search capabilities. If a law office is using a law library for their knowledge management, technology can be used there-eBook editions of texts, reference catalogs, and even a database of what is contained in the library.

How To Keep Knowledge Up-To-Date?

For knowledge management, staying up-to-date is rather important. Things change, new information is made available, and what is already known can be yesterday's news or rendered obsolete. Maintaining accurate knowledge for law office management purpose can actually be quite easy should a person be willing to do it. It's something that has to be done continuously, and some methods require more time-and occasionally money-than others do.

Continuing Education-One of the main methods of keeping knowledge relevant to law offices up-to-date involves continuing education. Staff members can take refresher courses, or go onto the next stage in their professional development. Classes and programs do come with a fee, but some of the bigger law offices may be able to pay for a portion of those fees. Some firms will encourage staff to continue their education throughout their careers and some may require it outright.

Industry News-Picking up on new knowledge as it becomes available can generate a professional edge over a person's peers and competitors. The legal system is changing at a steady rate, altering how law offices need to operate. In order for them to properly function within a fluctuating system, law offices need to collectively remain on top of those changes. A new law comes out that may affect clients? Study it. Local and state issues resulting in people needing to take legal action? Talk with current clients. Responding to new information within your particular industry or niche is business basics and necessary for effective knowledge management.

Self-testing-Some staff members may want to consider testing themselves on their knowledge. People forget things, especially if it's information that is not actively relevant to them. Self-tests are one way for someone to keep their minds sharp and make sure that their legal knowledge isn't slipping. It can give them an idea of what they need to work on and show law offices which areas they may be weak with. Self-tests do not need to be a requirement, but they should be something to consider.

Records-How Long Should They Be Kept?

As discussed previously, a file retention policy is usually put in place at law offices in order to properly dispose of different files. It's a process that is necessary to remove paper clutter and clear out documentation that is no longer needed. The same can be done with records management, but it can be difficult due to the nature of some records. Permanently destroying some records can come with their own set of issues. Lawyers Mutual, an insurance company that works specifically with law offices, states that legal services need to wait six years minimum before destroying records or files related to a case. 3 The clock begins as soon as representation of the client officially ends and only if the client has not granted the firm permission to destroy or distribute it in any way. Files can be destroyed at any time if the client has granted their consent, but only after the conclusion of the professional relationship.

Some records, however, should be kept for certain reasons. One of the reasons for the six-year records disposal grace period is because the records may need to be used for more legal actions. Some cases are revisited after they have been closed or the information needs to be presented as proof of what occurred during the case or the law office or client's involvement in it. Anything in the file that has legal significance-original documents like wills are one example-cannot be destroyed with the rest of the file. Records from cases where there is a statute of limitations should not be destroyed until the statutes have lifted at minimum. 4 In the event that the law office or any member of the legal team is faced with malpractice, records related to the inciting incident can be used. Destruction of a record should not be done lightly, and it should be heavily reviewed before actions are taken to dispose of it.

Records relevant to the operations of the law office, like tax and payroll records, should be kept for a certain amount of time as well before they should be destroyed. Tax records for example, fall into the category of never being destroyed. The same goes for any licenses (even if they are no longer active), pension and retirement records, and anything of extreme importance. Any legal document pertaining to the operation and formation of a law office should be retained. If the office were to permanently close, or retire in the case of staff members, then those records can be safe to destroy six years afterwards. 5 Expired policies-like for insurance plans-payroll, property, and receipt records can be disposed of after two-to-three years.

What Problems Can Occur?

A lot of the problems that do occur with knowledge and records management are a result of human error. Things get misplaced, filed in the wrong spots, forgotten, or are simply handled inappropriately. People can get sloppy or lazy when the office gets busy, which means that they cut corners in order to get everything done that they need to. The following problems are examples of issues that can be present with both knowledge and records management.

With Knowledge Management-The biggest issue with knowledge management is that it can be largely unregulated from a professional standpoint. 6 Law offices are going to be dependent on the knowledge and expertise of their legal team, and there cannot be a guarantee that staffers have relevant and recent knowledge about necessary issues.

Maintaining that knowledge for management can get pricey as well. Most law offices will choose to subscription news services to make sure that they are getting relevant information as soon as possible and that it is accurate. The cost can build over time, and some firms may question if the expense is worth it. There can also be issues with time, as in how much is spent by legal teams in understanding new information and figuring out how it can affect them.

With Records Management-Problems for records management are similar to the problems found with file management. Some issues are going to be related to how records are stored-risk of damage or corruption, security issues, maintenance of technology-while other are related to how those records are handled by staff members. The way records are handled is entirely under the control of the office they are present in; there is no general regulations or standards set for records management, both hard copy and digital. 7