Given the number of proprietary platforms used in prosecution, N.C. Opinion 2013-15 (January 24, 2014) is worth noting. It joins several other opinions analyzing whether a lawyer must provide to a former client e-files and how far the lawyer must go in finding them. But, more than that, it answered this question:
When the representation terminates and the client requests the file, is the lawyer or law firm required to provide the records in the format (electronic or paper) requested by the client?
With the following analysis:
Many clients, or successor counsel, will have the technical expertise and financial ability to receive client records in an electronic format without experiencing any problem or undue expense in opening, using, or reproducing the records. These clients will probably prefer to receive the records in an electronic format. However, there are clients, such as individuals or small businesses with limited financial means or technical expertise, that cannot afford to purchase expensive software or computer equipment simply to gain access to the records in their own legal files. There must be a weighing of the interests of the lawyer or law firm in producing the client’s file in an efficient and cost-effective manner against the client’s interest in receiving the records in a format that will be useful to the client or successor counsel.
Therefore, records that are stored on paper may be copied and produced to the client in paper format if that is the most convenient or least expensive method for reproducing these records for the client. If converting paper records to an electronic format would be a more convenient or less expensive way to provide the records to the client, this is permissible if the lawyer or law firm determines that the records will be readily accessible to the client in this format without undue expense. Similarly, electronic records may be copied and provided to the client in an electronic format (they do not have to be converted to paper) if the lawyer or law firm determines that the records will be readily accessible to the client in this format without undue expense. See 2002 FEO 5 (“in light of the widespread availability of computers,” emails may be provided to a departing client in an electronic format even if the client requests paper copies).
A lawyer should in most instances bear the reasonable costs of retrieving and producing electronic records for a departing client. However, a lawyer or law firm may charge a client the expense of providing electronic records if the client asks the lawyer or law firm to do any of the following: (1) convert electronic records from a format that is already accessible using widely used or inexpensive business software applications; (2) convert electronic records to a format that is not readily accessible using widely used or inexpensive business software applications; or (3) provide electronic records in a manner that is unduly expensive or burdensome.
Nevertheless, if the usefulness of an electronic record in a client file would be undermined if the document is provided to the client or successor counsel in a paper format, the record must be provided to the client in an electronic format unless the client requests otherwise. For example, providing a spreadsheet without the underlying formulas or providing a complex discovery database printed in streams of text on reams of paper would destroy the usefulness of such data to both the client and successor counsel. Similarly, a video recording cannot be reduced to a paper format and therefore must be provided to the client in its original format.
If you are not already dealing with this and related issues at the outset, consider doing so!