retention schedules & file plans

Destroyed CDs - shredded by a shredder.It lingers on – that vaguely guilty feeling that there’s something sanctionable, even illegal, about routinely destroying business data.  That’s nonsense.  It is well-settled United States law that a company may indeed dispose of business data, if done in good faith, pursuant to a properly established, legally valid data retention schedule, and in the absence of an applicable litigation preservation duty.

Even the courts themselves dispose of their data.  Federal courts are required by U.S. law to follow a retention schedule approved by NARA, and to ultimately destroy records or transfer them to the Federal Records Center, as directed by that retention schedule.

Here are but a few of the many case decisions on this point:
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3d blue cubes come together from different directions.Dr. Stephen Covey reminded us that “important” is not the same thing as “urgent.”  Records retention reminds us that important is not the same thing as exciting.  I get it – records retention schedules are boring.  But the fact remains that literally thousands of records retention requirements apply to your organization’s information.  I know, because my firm finds and tracks these laws as part of our decades of retention schedule work for clients across industries.  And your regulators expect you to know them too.

Records retention requirements generally apply to information’s content, regardless of the information’s medium – electronic data, paper, you name it.  The requirements are scattered across the federal and 50 states’ statutory and regulatory codes, often with unusual retention mandates.  Here are just a few:
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Empty SafeLast week’s post explored why law firms need data security policies.  Before we move on, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another policy that’s absolutely crucial for the law firm’s data security posture – a records management policy, coupled with an up-to-date and legally validated records retention schedule.

What does a records retention schedule have to do with data security?  Simply this – keeping data without a legal or business reason exacerbates data security exposures.

Breached systems frequently contain many times more data than was needed for retention compliance or any valid business or operational purpose.  This unnecessary data multiplies the number of those whose confidential or protected information is compromised, and can also have exponential impact once breached, passing a tipping point on lasting reputational damage or on the economic viability of claims against the firm.

It’s not possible for a breach to compromise the security of information that no longer exists, having already been compliantly disposed of once its legally required retention and business value have expired.

But surely most every law firm has a records retention schedule in place for its records of client matters and firm administration, right?  Actually, far too few firms do.
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Security dial turned to highest settingHow time flies.  Seventeen years ago, I went to work for a small, visionary company based in Seattle—Computer Forensics, Inc.   Indeed, the founder was so early in the e-discovery and forensics industry that our URL was forensics.com.  Laptop drives typically had 8 GB of storage, and servers were more often than not simply a bigger box that sat in a closet.

Lots has changed since then.  New technologies, expanded data sources and media types, and more raw data have flooded consumer and business marketplaces alike.  We’ve all seen the scary statistics on increasing information volumes and the security risks that follow.  Unfortunately, our controls for the creation, management, retention, and disposition of those data have not kept pace.  Yet how we manage our data on a day-to-day basis goes also to the heart of how we protect our data and ensure that our information assets are secure from theft or compromise.

During my years at CFI and since, I’ve found myself pondering “what if?” questions.  What if we only had to protect 20% of our information?  What if clients could take dollars earmarked for e-discovery and increased storage and spend them instead on better systems and operational improvements?  What if a client faced with the reality of a data breach didn’t have to wonder how many unnecessary skeletons were now visible?  The promise of information governance is that we can answer these questions affirmatively.  This is good news, and more importantly, news you can use.
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“GarGarbage Dumpbage in, garbage out” – we know that already, right?  Well … what we know about information quality and what we do are not always in sync. Just for kicks, consider information quality through the lens of the industrial quality movement.

Looking down from 30,000 feet, the history of industrial quality goes something like this – Medieval Guild craftsmanship, then Industrial Revolution product inspection, and then the post-World War II focus on quality process management.  It sounds arcane, until one remembers the 1980’s visceral fear that Japanese manufacturers were beating the pants off of U.S. manufacturing in terms of quality and value. Enter W. Edward Deming, who had been deeply influential in Japan’s post-war industrial recovery, and who became the evangelist for quality management practices in U.S. industry.  Deming exhorted American management to adopt product and service quality as the driving force in all business practices.

What’s that got to do with Information Governance?  It’s this – regardless of industry, in today’s world you’re actually in the information business.  So, business quality increasingly means information quality.  
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Twenty percent solutionOK, IT mavens, listen up…how much better would your life be if you only had to manage and protect 20% of your company’s data? By eliminating 80% of your data you could free up oodles of storage, reduce licensing costs, shorten backup cycles, and drastically cut e-discovery preservation costs, not to mention go home on time for a change.  For most this is an unrealistic pipe dream, but it doesn’t need to be.  The trick is knowing which 20% to manage.

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Destroyed CDs - shredded by a shredder.It lingers on – that vaguely guilty feeling that there’s something sanctionable, even illegal, about routinely destroying business data.  That’s nonsense.  It is well-settled United States law that a company may indeed dispose of business data, if done in good faith, pursuant to a properly established, legally valid data retention schedule, and in the absence of an applicable litigation preservation duty.

Even the courts themselves dispose of their data.  Federal courts are required by U.S. law to follow a retention schedule approved by NARA, and to ultimately destroy records or transfer them to the Federal Records Center, as directed by that retention schedule.

Here are but a few of the many case decisions on this point:


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Monster Ant“What if ants were as big as dinosaurs?”  I remember asking my kids that question, forever ago when they were young.  Maybe the thought came from reruns of old monster movies, like the 1954 classic Them! (pictured here).  Anyway, it was a cool game, for as the ant’s size multiplies, the laws of math, physics, and biology play their part:

  • The ant’s exoskeleton wouldn’t be strong enough to support the increased weight, so an internal skeleton is needed.
  • Gravity would play havoc with the ant’s open circulatory system, so a closed system is crucial.
  • The ant’s energy needs would soar, and so a different diet and digestive system are required.
  • The ant’s newfound size would totally alter its place in the food chain (The Lion King, “Circle of Life,” right?), driving fundamental changes in behaviors and capabilities.
  • And on, and on.

Until, we finally end up with an ant the size of a dinosaur … that looks a lot like a dinosaur.

But what’s this have to do with Information Governance?


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Hiker choosing between to directions at the mountainRetention schedules are essential in bringing order to a company’s complicated, chaotic information environment.  Whether they succeed in doing so depends largely on whether they are structured properly.  So, the age-old question is, what’s the best way to go – organizing the schedule by department/group, or by information content types?

The answer is both, plus an absolutely crucial element that’s missing from the question – the information’s context.


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