Is systematic records management (RM) – a pressing topic for law firms and corporations alike – good or bad for knowledge management (KM)? 

Many RM policies call for both saving certain records and destroying others. Any business process designed to manage content, can in theory, provide a vehicle for capturing content for a KM system. For example, indexes created for RM purposes can help the KM cause.

Unfortunately, however, RM requirements can also work against KM. For example, a policy to destroy records can interfere with KM efforts. At a recent meeting of legal KM professionals, we discussed how to square the RM mandate to destroy with the KM mandate to save; we touched on several concerns but did not reach definitive conclusions:

  • Old documents often have precedential value. Some practices find that 20 year old work product has current value. There was interest in a “carve out” to a destruction policy.
  • A carve out, however, raises difficult RM concerns in the event documents become subject to discovery. Especially if a firm’s engagement or matter-closing letter states that certain records are destroyed, keeping a copy could raise difficult risk issues.
  • We did not have an ethics lawyer participating so did not know whether “sanitizing” documents would resolve the issue. By removing all references to parties and identifying information (whether via human or software processes), the theory is the document would no longer be client-specific.
  • As a practical matter, we were concerned that if sanitizing or scrubbing a document is effective enough to remove a document from the grip of an RM policy, it may also make it very difficult to find for KM purposes. (A separate issue is who owns the work product and a firm’s right to re-use it; some in-house counsel argue firms have no re-use rights.)
  • Aside from KM issues, we observed that destroying records is hard, especially since lawyers often freely copy a document from one matter for use in another. The same document, with different document management profile data, can then exist and remain outside the scope of a destruction policy.
  • Though not a KM concern, we observed that a destruction policy has implications for lawyers leaving firms. Some lawyers keep personal files of their own work product and may take these when they leave the firm. This can raise RM problems (and others). Apparently some firms ask incoming lawyers not to bring any prior work product because of RM and other risk concerns.

RM will continue to drive many decisions, both in corporations and law firms, so bears careful watching by KM professionals.