June 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June 2001 Current Issue
June 2001 lawandplan.gifPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


Planners must document the entire meeting process, even electronic communications

No one’s memory is infallible. Indeed, one reason I preach against oral contracts is that even the best minds often conveniently fail to remember what was agreed to, especially when it comes to clauses that might be contested.

What should the meeting professional do to preserve the essence of the deal? Keep a comprehensive paper trail to protect the process and document what has gone on.

When it comes to litigation, one of the first things lawyers do is demand the production of all relevant documents. These days, the definition of a “document” goes well beyond the formal paper record; it includes e-mails, handwritten notes, tape recordings, phone logs, phone bills and any other media or sources. The court can even require you to produce your computer hard drive to ascertain whether a smoking-gun e-mail still can be detected despite any efforts to delete.

Nonetheless, good records kept by a client are a lawyer’s dream. I encourage mine to keep detailed notes on negotiations, since the notes help me determine how the intent of each party was written into the final contract.

In one case, I helped to defend a neophyte planner against a hotel that was suing for attrition charges for rooms the planner allegedly blocked after the contract was signed. Changes made in various drafts of the contracts were the arguing point. Because no one at the hotel kept notes showing why the changes were made, it was difficult to ascertain the reasons for them, a fact that was to the benefit of my client. There was nothing in the hotel’s file to support its position.

In general, the types of documents worth keeping permanently are those of high legal significance. In the meetings business, any pending contract information should be retained until the satisfactory conclusion of the contract or event.

This includes good notes of all meetings, telephone calls, all e-mails between participants, faxes, etc. Drafts of preceding documents also can be helpful in determining the give-and-take of the negotiations.

Because so much business now is conducted electronically, a digital document file should be established to archive comments relating to a specific project. All materials should be placed in that file, again pending the outcome of negotiations and a successful completion of the project.

Once a project is completed, I recommend that paper and digital documents be maintained for a minimum of three years after the fact. This life span varies depending upon each organization’s record-retention needs. One factor is the local statute of limitations on when contract lawsuits must be filed.

Every planner should have an organized method of trashing documents, which we euphemistically call a “record retention” program. (The advent of e-mails and digital filings has made this process much more complex, but not impossible.) Yes, you can legally delete potentially harmful documents, as long as it is done as part of a consistent program. Once a lawsuit starts, it’s too late to erase files and shred documents.

A basic rule of thumb: Keep information only as long as it is necessary to the current conduct of business, as long as it is required to be kept by statute or government regulation or as long as the documents are relevant to pending or foreseeable investigations or litigation.

All planners should find out what policies regarding record retention are in place in their organizations. If there is no policy or a limited one exists, a full program should be established.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at

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