Thursday, October 7, 2010

When Recycling Is an Epic (and Ethics) Fail

Or, Oh, No, He Di'int

Oh yes, he did. Today it's an Indiana attorney in the hotseat, who decided it was time to discard 14 boxes of client files. We don't know how old the cases were, only that he decided to go green and recycle them.

Sound like a good idea?

Not so much.

Said attorney directed his grown children to take the boxes chock full of intact client documents to a local recycling center, where they left them beside the bins. Because said bins were full. (Not that it would have made any difference if there had been room in the bins.)

Along comes a strong breeze, blows the tops off the boxes, and suddenly, all that sensitive and confidential information is blowin' in the wind for the whole world to see.

Someone called the attorney, who retrieved the documents. But someone else must have called the state bar and filed a complaint.

On September 30 the Indiana Supreme Court issued a reprimand, finding that the attorney had violated ethical rules that prohibit the release of current or former client information without consent. Actually placing the files in the recycling bins would not have changed the outcome because:

"[T]he information would've been available for opportunists to retrieve, with potentially devastating consequences to the clients," the court wrote. "Shredding client files an attorney no longer needs prior to disposal is one alternative for providing far safer protection of client information."

Recycling's a good thing when it comes to old newspapers, but a dumb idea when it comes to case files. I like to think no paralegal worth her salt would have discarded client files in such a careless manner. She would have made the attorney buy a nice shredder, or hire a trustworthy shredding service.

All those aluminum soda cans discarded by lawyers, clients and staff are a different story. Knock yourself out recycling them.



  1. Being a tree-hugging hippie environmentalist from the sixties (the 1960's for you young folk),I am pleased to point out, after disposing of thirty years of client files in order to change careers, that the choice is not between shredding and recycling. It is simply a matter of the order in which the task is accomplished: shred, then recycle the shredded remains. Or better yet, shred and compost. Let's face it, much of what gets shredded from client files is not of any greater substance than the manure that fertilizes our gardens now. Some how vegetables are so much tastier when one knows they gained nutrients from that divorce case that so stressed your digestive system 25 years ago.
    The perfect solution, of course, has not yet been achieved. I am still working on changing old files into a decent beer.

  2. In my firm it's more like beer cans and bottles.

    We finally got the head office to shell out for a shredding service. We had been doing all our own with a big industrial-sized shredder, but have burned out three in the past year. I guess they got the message.

  3. Bob, if you find a way to convert old paper to beer, you'll be able to buy your own island, like the guy who invented Post-Its :P

  4. Grumpy - We bit the bullet and got a shredding service, too. Even though we're trying to go paperless, we still can't get other people to stop sending us paper :P


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