File Opening & Closing

Client files are like houses: you build them on a solid foundation, and when you are done you want people to be happy and at peace with what you have created. The opening and closing of files are critical steps; organise your procedures to make sure you are set up for success at both stages.

Your procedure for opening files should be documented and part of any office manual.

File Opening

Basic steps include:

  1. a conflicts check,
  2. an intake for basic client ID,
  3. a more full intake (depending on file type)
  4. the establishment of a responsible lawyer, and
  5. all physical steps to open a paper or electronic file, including on your accounting system.

Perhaps less obvious, there are other key opening steps to take:

  • a systematic analysis of whether you can or should take the client and file due to:
    • workload,
    • resources,
    • competencies related to that file type, which might also lead you to consider technological competency if the file requires a certain skill set.
    • competencies related to the client or their family situation, which might lead you to consider cultural competency, as some clients or situations require a specific skill set,
    • personal commitments.
  • a retainer agreement or letter.

These steps all make your work easier and your client service better. If you do not take all these steps with every file, you can easily find yourself in an unsafe position, or simply overwhelmed.

Conflict Check

Depending on the type of file, file opening often begins with a conflicts check, unless the client is well known to you or the subject is not likely to generate a conflict. The conflicts check may take place by staff before any material facts about a case are learned so a lawyer is not conflicted-out of an existing case inadvertently. Avoiding conflicts is covered in greater detail as a stand-alone subject.

Responsible Lawyer

Every file should have a lawyer who has ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the file, from opening through closing. It should be clear to everyone handling the file who the responsible lawyer is.

Intake Forms

Depending on the types of law you practice, you might have different intake forms for different situations. The intake form (or software) takes the usual necessary information. It will save you a lot of time and aggravation to have good ones. Some firms have staff complete these forms with clients in appropriate circumstances. Intake forms are recommended good practice.

Client ID

Client ID is often attended to at the outset. You must follow client ID regulations. You must distinguish between basic situations where you must ID your client and situations where you will be “receiving, paying or transferring” funds. Either way, have a system that everyone understands and uses to systematically capture what you need, and not more personal information than that. Consider an intake form for basic situations to gather and record the necessary information; review carefully our regulations and guidance about client ID where “receiving, paying or transferring” funds.

Some service providers offer client ID and source of funds verification. You are responsible for assuring that any such software is appropriate. At the time of writing, this is a new issue and will be covered elsewhere.

Refer to the Resources below for intake forms, checklists, and other resources to assist you with determining your obligations and how to comply.

Tips for file opening

  1. In appropriate cases, conflict check before the lawyer interviews the client so the firm is not conflicted out of existing work.
  2. For “funds” transactions where you will do work for the client more than once, consider using a separate file folder/electronic folder, one for each client, which you can find by searching whatever file system you use, to keep the required ID and source information, which you will update over time.
  3. Have a system to periodically destroy your ID & source of funds files once 6 years have passed since the completion of each client’s most recent matter.
  4. For regular, not “source of funds” files, use intake forms to collect only the required personal information; do not take copies of ID, which amounts to unnecessary collection of personal information.

Resources: File Opening

Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society,  “Client Identification & Verification Overview”, (2020). nsbs.org.

NSBS Chart for Verification Situations. Please read it with the new guidance of October 2023 in mind.

Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, “Client ID Documents & Resources” (October, December 2023). nsbs.org.

Online landing page with various resources for verification situations.

Law Society of Ontario, “File Management” (May 25, 2020). lso.ca.

This online article has a good guide for managing files.

Law Society of British Columbia, “Law Society of British Columbia Practice Checklists Manual”  (November 2022). lawsociety.bc.ca.

This checklist provides tips for opening a file and runs through the various obligations that must be discharged. You must read it with NS law and our Code of Professional Conduct in mind (BC and NS Codes are similar but differ some in content and significantly in terms of section numbers and guidance below the line.)

File Closing

When you finish all work on a file, make a practice to close it promptly. Closing means you systematically:

  1. check to make sure everything has been done,
  2. return all client property,
  3. cull the file of unnecessary material,
  4. schedule a destruction date per your policy and mark it on the file,
  5. close the file on your file system,
  6. assign a closed file number (recommended) so you can find it,
  7. store the file securely & such that it can easily be retrieved and destroyed at the end of the retention period…
  8. …after which you destroy the file.

If you have paper files, it is strongly recommended that you keep them in boxes by the destruction date. You want to be able to pull entire boxes and provide them to a shredding company, for example all those files with a destruction date of 2035. For data, do something analogous to make it easier on yourselves.

Some firms scan at this stage. Scanning works best if it happens at the time of receipt of documents. At closing, it might be an unnecessary expense if you are shredding promptly. Contact [email protected] for guidance. We help firms save time and money and make compliance easier.

File Closing Resources

Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, “NSBS Legal Services Support- File Closing Checklist” (2023). nsbs.org.

Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, “NSBS Template File Retention, Destruction Policy” (2023). nsbs.org (word document).