Surprise Audit: Lengthy Email Record Retention Saves the Day

Business email records are an asset of the enterprise.  Their status as a valuable asset often justifies lengthy, generous retention in a reliable, searchable archive.

In support of this idea, a certified public accountant recently told me a story.

Some Lawyers Disagree

But before I recount the story, I need to explain a contrary school of thought.  Some business lawyers urge that emails be deleted quickly (e.g., 60-90 days).  These lawyers view email records as a liability, a potential smoking gun to be used in litigation against the enterprise, and a hoard of evidence that is expensive to sift in eDiscovery.

Sometimes these lawyers seek justification for quick deletion under a doctrine known as “defensible deletion.”

The Enterprise’s Mission Trumps Litigation Risks

Some lawyers -- like those who recommend quick email destruction -- think everything in an enterprise is about litigation.  The lawyers’ responsibility is to protect the enterprise from liability in litigation.  Some lawyers think they will be at advantage in litigation if there are few records.

However the mission of an enterprise (nonprofit, for-profit or government) is to do more than avoid liability in litigation.  It is to make widgets or provide services.  The mission should drive decisions on how long to keep email.

Auditors Show Up Unexpectedly

Now the story:  The CPA told me that old email records
Email as
Evidence
saved her company in a difficult audit.  Her company is a smaller contractor to the US Department of Defense.  DoD auditors arrived, looking to review work done eight years ago!

According to the CPA, her company did not possess the original records from so long ago.  However, it did have its email records from the time in question.  In the modern enterprise, email contains much detail about what happened, why it happened and when it happened.

The CPA was able to use email (which is searchable and stamped with date/time) to recreate the evidence demanded by the auditors.  The company passed the audit, thanks to its lengthy retention of electronic mail records.

Your Opinion

Dear reader: What is your opinion on how long email records should be retained?