Going "Green" with a Document Retention Policy

by Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC
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Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC

My parents grew up during the Great Depression. As children they had, by necessity, been trained to save everything that had any possible future use, and that carried into their adult lives. 

As a result, our house was the epitome of today’s “green” idea of “reuse.” Our basement storage room was full of a wondrous collection boxes, jars, and plastic containers of various sizes in shapes, waiting to be recommissioned when needed. Plus, there was a craft cabinet in our home that boasted fabric, yarn and ribbon remnants, old buttons, holiday cards (which I fondly remember turning into gift tags), and used wrapping paper to be reused for increasingly smaller gifts until it was too small to reuse again.

Saving Used Violin Strings

It is no surprise that I carried the idea of savings things which might become useful. When I became a violinist, that extended to used violin strings. When I started playing the violin, there was a logic to saving used strings in that they had already been “stretched out.”

At that time, the better violin strings were metal wrapped gut strings.[1] Gut strings take several days at minimum to stretch out and “settle.” Until this happens, they go out of tune and need to be retuned frequently.

Although I tried to plan my string changes so that the new strings would have time to settle in before a major performance, there were occasional “emergency” string changes when, for instance, the metal on a string started unwinding or a string broke.  If that happened with a gut string, it was extremely useful to have an old “pre-stretched” string to put on the violin to assure tuning stability in a performance.  

Now, however, most musicians use synthetic strings[2], which are wrapped in metal.  One huge benefit to the synthetic strings is that unlike a natural substance like gut, the synthetic strings do not need to be stretched out.  As a result, synthetic strings are much more stable in tuning from the start, and there isn’t as much of a reason to save used strings.

Yet, old habits are difficult to break, and for many years, I found myself hanging onto the habit of saving those old strings, even though they take up space in my violin case and are unlikely ever to be used.  Sometimes, just having the old strings even caused a problem, because I thought I had an ample supply of new strings when what I really had were a lot of old, used strings, some of which were even tarnished by the passage of time.  Fortunately, through self-discipline, I finally created a policy where I keep only one set of old strings in my case.

A Document Retention Policy Determines How Long and in What Format to Save Documents

Just as I hung onto old strings after their usefulness was over, a company, also, can fall victim to keeping records so long that they interfere with the company’s business. 

Paper records can take over company offices and off-site storage locations and electronic records can clutter up the company’s servers and cloud storage sites.  The company may find itself seeking to secure ever increasing record and data storage space to feed an insatiable need that all records be saved – or perhaps just a fear of discarding the wrong thing. 

As important as it is that some records be kept, it is equally important that the business discard records on a timely basis.  Yet, when it comes time to clean up, both for individuals and business, the task can seem overwhelming – particularly without guidance about which items should be saved and which should be discarded.  It also is important that the company establish protocols about where and how records should be saved. 

The consequences of inadequate document or record retention practices can be significant.  The news regularly reports data breaches caused when an employee saved private, unencrypted data on a laptop, only to have the laptop stolen, resulting in a costly and embarrassing privacy breach. 

In one company without a document retention policy (DRP), instead of saving records to the company’s cloud drive, some employees were saving their records to their individual office PC hard drives.  This lapse was discovered only after the PCs were replaced as a new computer system was implemented.  Unfortunately, this occurred during a government investigation.  The resulting penalties to the company far exceeded the cost it would have spent on the development and implementation of a DRP.

Customizing Your Business’ Document Retention Policy

DRPs are not “one size fits all”.  A business’ DRP should be customized by the business’ attorney in collaboration with management to not only to ensure that the company complies with legal requirements but also to meet the practical needs of the industry and the business itself.  For instance, some records may be retained longer than legally required to adhere to industry standards, meet customer needs, or in anticipation of litigation. 

A DRP also must address the fact that not all “documents” are in traditional written form. Records can include audio and video, as well as the written word.  Some company records may be stored electronically on company computers, in company cloud space, on company mobile devices, on flash drives, or even with company contractors.  An inventory which determines how and where the business’ records are stored, therefore, is a critical step.

The DRP should establish in what format and for how long each type of document should be retained. It also should establish security protocols, including any special protocol (e.g., shredding) required for disposition of documents which are no longer needed.

Adopting a DRP is only the beginning of the process, however. Implementation and consistent application of the DRP at every level in the company is critical.  After adoption of a DRP, the company should select an individual document retention manager inside the company who is responsible for implementation and compliance with the DRP.  

Using the company’s DRP as a guide, the document retention manager should develop storage systems both on-site and off-site as needed with a goal of minimizing both storage and retrieval costs. The document retention manager also should confirm that the business has the processes and means in place to retain documents longer than is typical should that become necessary due to pending or threatened litigation or otherwise.

Every employee, regardless of function, should receive training about the DRP and be enlisted to assist with DRP compliance on a daily basis. Because breaking old habits can be difficult, training should be repeated regularly, and the document retention manager should also routinely evaluate compliance with the plan.

Using a Document Retention Policy to “Green” Your Business

“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a common refrain as our society strings to “go green.” A DRP can help a business save money and cut back on use of natural resources. For example, some businesses retain documents in paper format, even though they are already in electronic format. By eliminating unneeded duplication in paper files, the business both can save money while cutting back on the use of paper (and toner, and storage space).

A modern DRP can and should evaluate what documents can be maintained solely in electronic format, assure that safeguards are in place so that documents which should be preserved and in fact preserved, and also can prescribe how documents are to be disposed of.  A “green” DRP might, for instance, include not only minimization of use of paper documents. It also might include a quarterly business-wide paper document recycling day to help assure that unneeded paper documents not only are discarded but also are appropriately recycled (with shredding if necessary), rather than thrown in the trash.

Keeping Your Document Retention Policy Current

Finally, just as my need to keep old strings changed over time, a company’s needs may change, also.  New technology or business practices may change how or where documents are stored, and new legal requirements may change what needs to be retained or for how long a business must retain its documents.

Therefore, the document retention manager should supervise regular compliance audits and retaining, to assure that the company operations conform to the DRP and work with the business’ attorney to assure that the DRP continues to meet the company’s needs.

A DRP won’t clean out file cabinets, offices, or storage unit for a business. However, a DRP created in collaboration between the business’ attorney and management, is important to business continuity and can eliminate much of the stress and risk from the decision about when, where, how, and how long to save documents, while also helping the business to go green.


[1]  Early violin strings, through the 19th century, were made of pure sheep (not cat) gut. The lower or largest strings were frequently wrapped in silver wire. By increasing the mass of the lower strings, it, therefore, was possible to tighten the lower strings to a similar tension to upper strings, which were pure gut. In the early 20th century, metal (usually silver) wrapped gut strings were the most popular type of string used by professional musicians (with the exception of the high-pitched e-string, which typically was a metal string).  Steel strings came into the market in the early 20th century, and soon, with improved technology, steel core strings wrapped in metal were developed.  These quickly surpassed popularity of gut strings for student instruments and for e-strings due to durability and bright, direct sound and pitch stability. However, steel strings were not popular among professional musicians because their sound was not as warm or rich as that produced by gut strings.

[2] In the 1970’s Tomastic-Infeld was the first manufacturer to create a synthetic core string, which used nylon perlon with a metal wrapping, resulting in a warmer sound closer to gut strings with a pitch stability that is closer to metal strings. Today, there are dozens of different brands of synthetic-core strings, boasting various tensions, resonance, brightness, and warmth of sound. With the variety available, the choice of string depends upon violinist preference, purpose for which the strings will be used (a more powerful sound might be desired for a soloist than for an orchestra musician, for example), and how the instrument responds to the strings.

This series draws from Elizabeth Whitman’s background in and passion for classical music to illustrate creative solutions for legal challenges experienced by businesses and real estate investors.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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