How to Respond to a Subpoena: 10 Things You Should Do Immediately

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Responding to a subpoena can be a daunting task and early missteps can have severe repercussions. Here is a short list of critical steps you can take in the early stages of the subpoena response to protect your company.

  1. Preserve. Preserve. Preserve. Immediately upon receipt of a subpoena, you should inform all necessary employees of the need to retain documents, including electronic documents, with a document hold memo that replaces standard document retention policies for potentially responsive materials. Destroying or removing documents in the context of a government investigation—whether done affirmatively or by failing to suspend automated document retention protocols—may be viewed as obstruction of justice. At the very least, it will create the appearance of an unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation.
  1. Establish a dialogue with the appropriate enforcement authorities. Communication is critical to understanding the scope of the investigation and establishing a working relationship with the government. You should initiate contact quickly to discuss the scope of the subpoena and develop a feasible production schedule.
  1. Inform the company’s key executives. Receiving a subpoena is no small matter and, depending on the nature of the subpoena and potential enforcement action, the key executives and even the board of directors need to be made aware immediately. This is especially important if your company is publicly traded as there may be disclosure obligations.
  1. Determine whether the subpoena was properly served. Not all subpoenas are properly served and improper service may provide valid grounds to get the subpoena quashed. You should quickly evaluate the basis upon which the subpoena was issued and served to determine whether to object or take other action.
  1. Advise employees of their rights and responsibilities, including access to counsel. Either at the time the subpoena is initially served or in follow up activities, agents may attempt to interview employees. It is important to remind employees immediately of their responsibility to be truthful when speaking with agents of the government, but that they may choose to have an attorney present if they do decide to be interviewed. You should also reiterate your company’s policy on cooperating with investigations and request that employees inform the legal department of any discussions or contacts with the government.
  1. Evaluate your insurance policy’s notice requirements. Under many insurance policies, a subpoena is a triggering event. Putting your policy holder on notice early on increases your chances of having insurance pay for some or all of the investigation and/or litigation costs.
  1. Identify key company individuals. Identifying which individuals within the company are key to the subpoena response will help determine and potentially limit the overall scope of documents you are required to produce. Seeking to narrow or tailor the scope of a subpoena is an important early step in the response process.
  1. Narrow file search parameters. Once the key individuals are identified, you can then identify electronic and paper files that must be collected and searched. Fulfilling the government’s request but not producing irrelevant or privileged documents requires a precisely-tailored search protocol.
  1. Protect and defend privileged materials. Protecting and defending privileged materials is a cornerstone responsibility of corporate counsel. Documents subject to privileges or protections should be isolated, logged, and preserved. While there are remedies available for inadvertently-produced privileged materials, no one wants to be in the position of having to seek return of a privileged document.
  1. Construct a formal, defensible review process. You should construct a formal review process that can be defended in court, with a focus on e-discovery issues. It is advisable to have your response protocol evaluated by outside legal counsel early in the process to ensure that all potential sources of electronic data have been identified and searched.

This post adapted from the article, “10 Steps Your Company Should Take When Responding to a Subpoena” by Ben Klubes, James Parkinson, and John Kromer, originally published in Bloomberg Law Reports: Banking & Finance, Vol. 4, No. 8, August 1, 2011.