Tech Audit

Data Decay

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Data storage is cheap and easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a simple matter.

Though the migration from paper to digital has been go­ing on for decades, law firms might be unaware that digital archival media—including CD-ROMs, DVDs, floppy disks and backup tapes—may have a shorter life than paper. Tape backup, CDs, DVDs and disks may advertise a life span of 20 to 250 years, but without proper care and backup techniques, media will not last nearly that long.

According to the Britain-based Digital Preservation Co­alition, which is a group of archivists and researchers, a typical CD-ROM should last 30 years. But if the disk is stored improperly—if temperatures rise above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, for example—it may last only three months.

“The bad news is nobody has … cracked obsolescence,” says Philip Lord, a consultant with the Digital Ar­chiving Consultancy of York, England. “You can’t just put CDs on a shelf and expect them to be around in the future.” Legal technology experts recommend lawyers not only invest in high-quality backup media, but periodically test that media to see if they will be able to recover data in an emergency. Unfortunately, some lawyers may not be willing or able to invest the time or money.

“Lawyers are cheap,” says Nerino J. Petro, practice man­agement adviser for the State Bar of Wisconsin. “They’re still using cheap systems and not doing file verification and test restores.”

File verification is a check to confirm files have not been changed or corrupted. Look for free versions of software available online that can do a cyclical redundancy check, which verifies that backed-up files are identical to the originals. And a test restore is simply checking to see that files can be retrieved from storage and will work. “Pick a few files and rebuild something like your payroll system,” Petro recommends. “It’s better to know now that the system actually works than to find out the hard way later.”

To avoid storing data on media that will degrade too quickly, copy data to newer storage media regularly. De­pending on how long lawyers need to keep data, they should keep an inventory of all data and recopy it to new systems. If a backup system is properly maintained, that might be every couple of years. If a law firm just uses CDs, tape backup or hard drives kept in a cabinet, it might be better if done every couple of months.


Media itself is not always the biggest problem when trying to restore documents from years past. Lawyers may run up against technical obsolescence, since the same software and hardware used to create a file at one point in time may not be available to access it years later. One solution is to keep copies of software along with backup files. Lord recommends that, whenever possible, lawyers store documents in a form not likely to become archaic, like plain text or PDF.

Storage technology is improving, but there is always a risk of catastrophic failure for even the best storage system. So law firms should consider a layered approach to backup and storage. Scott Barer, a solo lawyer in Warner Center, Calif., says that since he lives in an environmentally volatile state, he uses multiple storage systems in different locations. “I’ve developed a belt-and-suspenders approach,” he says. “I use a hard drive backup here in the office and online backup for storage offsite.”

Different practices need to retain documents for different time periods, so no one digital storage system will work for everyone. But if a firm needs to hang onto documents for several years, it may find the disk drive is not as reliable as the filing cabinet.

“Some people might be OK if they lose most of their data,” says Petro. “You have to decide what an acceptable risk is for your firm and decide how much time and energy you’re willing to put into your system.”

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