Illinois: Don’t Be Quick To Dispose Client Closed Files

According to a recent opinion from the Illinois Bar Association’s Ethics Committee, an attorney can usually dispose of closed client files after seven years without trying to locate the clients and give them advance notice. However, there may be specific situations where it is necessary or prudent to retain a file, or portions of a file, for longer than seven years.  

In the opinion, a law firm was incurring substantial storage costs for closed client files. The firm’s standard engagement letter provided that the firm would return client papers and property upon request, but that the firm reserved the right to destroy or dispose of materials within a reasonable time after the end of the engagement. However, locating and contacting former clients to seek consent for destruction, or to provide advance notice of destruction, would be impossible and costly in some situations.

By drawing on guidance from other jurisdictions, the Committee concluded that firms can generally dispose of closed client files after seven years without prior notice. The committee reasoned that the 10-year retention period proposed by the law firm was “clearly reasonable,” and “a general ‘default’ retention period of seven years for the ordinarily closed file materials of an Illinois law firm also appears reasonable.” Moreover, retaining closed client files for seven years is “consistent” with two Illinois Supreme Court’s lawyer record-keeping requirements and advantageous in the event of a lawyer liability claim. Lastly, the committee stated that it is unnecessary to send a former client notice of the proposed disposal of routine closed materials since attempting to locate former clients will often time be futile, time-consuming, and expensive.

Read the opinion here.

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