Closing a client file is pretty simple. You just have to gather everything into one place, notify your client of the end of the representation, and archive the file. There is a bit more to it, of course, but a checklist can help you follow the same procedure every time and get valuable feedback from your client.
When To Close Files
Promptly. One of the important things you will do as part of closing a file is formally terminating the representation. The longer you wait, the greater the chance the—technically—open and ongoing attorney-client relationship leads to a misunderstanding. The risk may be small (or great, depending on the client), but you can head it off entirely by closing your files and notifying the client promptly when your work is done.
Usually, it is easy to identify the point at which the representation has ended and your work is done. In litigation, your work is probably done when you give your client their portion of the settlement in full. Or when you get a verdict (post-trial motions and appeals are probably separate matters, although that may depend on your retainer agreement). If you are preparing estate plans or business formations, your work is probably done when the documents are signed and filed or delivered. If you are negotiating a deal, your work is probably done when the deal is signed.
The point is, you know when your work is done, so close the file.
Gather The File
No matter how hard you try, The File is probably scattered all over the practice. Even in well-organized practices, emails need to be gathered from multiple users, original documents need to be reconciled with scans, statements need to be generated and added, etc. It is possible to minimize the extent to which the file is scattered, but your file-closing procedures will probably involve more than just moving a folder from one file cabinet to another.
Gathering The File does not need to take long, but you should have a procedure for doing it. If you have a clear paperless workflow, it will be easier than if you have to scan piles of documents before you can close the file.
Return the File to Your Client
You don’t have to return the file, but there aren’t many good reasons to keep it unless you like storing things. There are exceptions to this, of course. Estate planning lawyers may keep official, paper copies of the wills they prepare. Business lawyers who expect more business from their clients may keep the official copy of the business’s record. But get rid of all the paper you can, keep only digital copies, and give the client a copy of their digital file, too.
Give all the paper back to the client.
Also, notify the client how long you will keep their file. Ten years seems to be a commonly-recommended time frame. You should tell your client something like this:
Enclosed are all original documents in our possession and a CD with a copy of our digital file. Please note: we will destroy our copy of your file in ten (10) years without notice to you.
Find Out How You Did
Call your client. Yes, pick up the phone and have an actual conversation. Don’t just send a survey by email. Ask what you could have done better. Be persistent. Get a real answer. Even happy clients can offer you suggestions for improvement.
Take the answer seriously. Depending on how frequently you close files, sit down with your staff and consider how you could improve client service for all your clients based on the feedback you receive.
(Bonus points: do this in the middle of your representation, too.)
Sample File Closing Checklist
Most importantly, follow the same procedures when closing every file. Make sure to complete a file-closing checklist every time. There is a lot to do, and a checklist will ensure you (or your staff) don’t miss anything when closing a file. You can use a paper checklist, but it is more effective to use practice management software that lets you use task-list templates to ensure consistency.