1. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Do lawyers keep their case files in an unlocked file cabinet, or are they locked?

    Discussion in 'Research' started by Ryan Elder, May 2, 2016.

    For my story, a character wants to break into a defense lawyer's office, and steal a file on the case, which of course would contain information that only the lawyer and defendant would know about it, legally.

    But would he be able to just break into the officer door, and take the file from a cabinet? Or would he have to hire a specialist to open a complex safe?

    Originally I wrote it so that the character breaks into the lawyer's computer to get the information, but I was told by a couple of other writers that computer hacking is a trope used too often, and I should go for something else.

    But with all the computers used nowadays for things like that, do attorneys even have their cases in files on paper anymore? Does anyone know? Thanks for the input. I really appreciate it.
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Unlocked at our office, but after hours you need an electronic card to get in the building and another one to get onto our floor.

    We do still have paper files for everything, but I operate almost entirely electronically.
     
  3. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. What about to get into the door of the actual office?
     
  4. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Ours are all open. But the whole floor is all the same law firm.
     
  5. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    My Mom does family law, not criminal defense, so the security level may not be the same. I don't know what kind of filing cabinet they have, but I do know that her active cases often aren't even in a filing cabinet - they're sitting on a desk or a chair, or she's brought them home to work on in her spare time.

    So if you want to throw a curveball in, they may need to search the office to find the papers, or the papers might not even be there at all.

    Also, in terms of getting in, when the firm is open you can just walk in, but you will be seen doing so, and therefore would need an excuse to be there. (In my case, they all know I'm the daughter of one of the lawyers, so no one comments on my presence.) After hours, unless someone forgot to lock up or is working late (both of which I've seen happen), there's both a locked door and an alarm that needs a code entered in a certain amount of time after the door is opened, or it'll automatically dial 911. (The alarm makes an annoying beeping once you open the door, so it's pretty obvious.)
     
  6. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I have worked at two law firms. At the first, all cabinets and drawers were kept unlocked. The doors to the offices and the main door were locked at night. At the second, we needed a key card to get in the main door and to gain access to our floor. All cabinets and drawers were locked at night.
     
  7. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. Now in the files of a criminal case, let's say the defendant did not hire the lawyer himself, and someone else hired the lawyer to represent the defendant. Will that someone else, be in the file, as the person who paid the lawyer, or will that person not be in the file of the case?

    If a person breaks into a law firm, cause he wants to find out who hired a lawyer to represent someone else, where would he look to find out who hired the lawyer, if not in the case file?
     
  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I don't work in criminal law, but as far as I know, it is not mandatory to have that information in a case file. I can't imagine why it would need to be included in the first place.
     
  9. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    We have it in the file because if someone other than the client is paying we have language in the engagement letter noting that a third party is paying and the third party is not the client.

    The locking issue may depend on the firm size. I've worked at four medium to large firms (the largest having around 800 attorneys at the time) and none of them have had locked file cabinets. It's just not practical with that many files. They're all over the office - on desks, etc. Central filing might keep them locked up when stored, but while they were being worked on they weren't. But it is a better idea to always have them locked if you can.
     
  10. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    At the DA's office in San Juan, files are kept unlocked. Getting to the DA's offices (10th through 13th floors) is a different matter. You either need your own electronic access card to operate the elevator that takes you to those floors, else be escorted by a guard who comes down upon request at the lobby and takes you up. Once on the 10th floor, you sign in, surrender your bag for inspection, give your ID, and then pass through a metal detector into the DA's lobby. Once there, you go to the receptionist who is behind a wall of glass thick enough to distort and request the files you came for (which are passed through a complex sort of airlock box thingie in the wall) or you indicate the person with whom you have an appointment. If it's the latter, the person is notified of your presence, and they come to get you. To pass from the DA's lobby into the actual offices, more electronic card access is used. Once you're within the "vault" of offices, things are pretty open and it depends on the specific ADA (in PR they are referred to as AUSAs). Some are quite fastidious with their files, others not so much.
     
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  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, I've always had access controlled at the point of entry to the building. A small/solo practicioner might not have that.
     
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  12. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    @Steerpike: I question this scenario. Other than in a grand jury trial, which is of course a sealed affair, wouldn't the files on a case have to be in the possession of both defense and prosecution; thus, they would be public record?
     
  13. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    My question arrises from the fact that on those occasions when I served as the translator for a grand jury case, I had to do the work within the walls of the DA's offices, on their computers. They provide a small office for we translators for this work. But other than a grand jury trial, the information is passed to me via email to do from the comfort of my home office because these documents are public record.
     
  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @Wreybies I don't do criminal law. I know people who have been prosecutors and public defenders and in private criminal law practice. My understanding is that the court has a file on each case that is a matter of public record (although the court can put things under seal that won't be). These days, a lot of this stuff is available online. But the prosecution and defense maintain their own working files for each case. There is certain information they are required to share, but not everything. In the case of the private criminal defense attorney, at least, I don't believe that file has to be made public, ever. In the case of the prosecution, at the least, I think it should be made public, but as far as I know their working files are not public records.
     
  15. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Thank you for clarifying that for me. :agreed:
     
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  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    To further clarify - that's my understanding from what I've seen and how it appears to work. Someone who practices in this area may come in and correct and or all of it :D
     
  17. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Understood. My own engagement is solely from the side of the prosecution at the fed level. :bigwink:
     
  18. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    In my story, the case has not gone to trial yet, but the defense attorney still has the file, prior to trial, and the person who is paying him would not be a matter of public record.
     
  19. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    If it was at my law firm, the name of that person would be in the firm's files somewhere. When a third party pays the bills there is always a potential conflict, with the party who is making payment possibly getting the impression that they have some say in the representation because of it. They don't. When a third party pays here, we have them sign an agreement acknowledging that they are not our client, are not entitled to direct the representation, are not entitled to privileged information, etc. So our file for that case would have a signed document identifying the third party payor.
     
  20. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks, that helps a lot.

    I was told before by a couple of writers to change this scenario. Originally I wrote it so that the MC, gets a specialist, to hack into the lawyer's email accounts and find the email address of the person the lawyer is communicating with, who hired him.

    However, I was told that this was too cliche, as so many thrillers rely on the cliche of using a hacker.

    So I thought I might rewrite it so that the MC gets a keycard, and breaks into the office, and file room.

    However, would that be more difficult, and possibly leave more evidence of a break in, if he does it that way as oppose to hacking?

    I know that computer hacking is a cliche in thrillers, but is it a better option, of the MC getting what he wants in this case?
     
  21. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    So if someone stole a key card then, how long would it take for the firm to respond and change the key coding?
     
  22. theamorset
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    theamorset Contributing Member

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    That information is not freely or easily available to the public during the trial. A judge would decide what, if anything, can be released to the media during the trial. For example, in the Unabomber case, the defendant prevented the judge from releasing any information about his long history of severe schizophrenia. The public knew nothing of it until his brother published a book revealing that information.

    After the trial some records may be sealed, others not.

    The thing is, depending on the timing and the type of case, there would be absolutely no reason to break in anywhere or steal anything.

    Too, many records are not stored by the law firm. There are companies that store the information for the law firm (such as with large medical cases where there are huge volumes of data).

    Further, much of the data of a case would not be stored at the law firm these days at all. Most of it would be offsite during most of the life of the data.

    Law firms simply don't have the capacity to store paper records. That's the main reason for electronic records. One law firm I worked for got the equivalent of 50,000 pages of data a month.

    And...who ever told you to not break into a computer because that's been 'overdone', that doesn't change the fact that most legal records are on computer, and printed records are assuming less and less importance.
     
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2016
  23. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks a lot for the info. I was wondering, if my character wanted to know the truth about the case, that is, the truth about what the lawyer's client told him, so the lawyer could give him a defense, where would this record be kept? If not at the law firm, than what building?

    You also said that depending on the timing and type of case, there would be no reason to steal anything. Why is that?
     
  24. theamorset
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    The truth about what a lawyer's client told him? It would be in the lawyer's notes, of course, but all that would come out in the case as well.

    And by law there are very, very strict rules (in all countries) about what a defense lawyer can say to his or her client.

    Too, there's a little thing that goes on in most countries that says that the defense gets all the information the prosecution has, and the prosecution gets all the information the defense has. Both sides know everything the other side knows. No surprises.

    And because after the case most or all of it is a matter of public record. Today, I can call almost any court in the USA and ask them for a CD recording of an entire trial, or a transcript. And I have done so.

    I also have had subscriptions to legal websites like NextLaw which has complete records of all important cases.

    There just aren't really all these secrets in criminal law. There just aren't. A defense lawyer is very restricted in what he can say to a client and how he can defend the client. He's bound not just by law and precedent, but also the oath he takes as a lawyer. If he doesn't respect that oath he'll be up for disciplinary charges or lose his license. It's really not a free-for-all.

    And IF the lawyer did something against the rules, it wouldn't be written down anywhere!!!!

    When a lawyer is corrupt, s/he makes an effort to cover up any wrongdoing. That means no notes, no doodles, no money trail.
     
  25. Ryan Elder
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    Ryan Elder Contributing Member

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    Okay thanks. But lawyers do not tell everything in court though. For example if the client tells the lawyer how he killed his victim, wouldn't the lawyer want to know the details of the murder, so he can help build a case, to defend his client?

    The lawyer is not going to say in open court that his client did it, and how he did it, but wouldn't he want to make his own notes on the details of how the crime happened, in order to build a defense?

    Lawyers do not actually tell what happened of the actual crime in court, in order to defend the client, but wouldn't they make notes of what happened, for reference to build a defense? That's not the lawyer covering up in wrongdoing, that is just him trying to do his job and build a defense, so it's legal, isn't it?

    Does the defense have to have everything come out in the case, including all the details? What if the details incriminated his own client? Are defense attorneys suppose to incriminate their own clients and make it all public record?
     

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