I think it’s unethical for lawyers to use open source software for client work.
I want you to read that again. I said that I THINK it’s unethical for lawyers to use open source software. Truth is, I’m not so sure. That, however, is how I’m leaning after doing a bit of research. Permit me to explain how I arrived at that conclusion….and please let me know if you agree. I’d love to hear what the lawyer-universe thinks.
First, my disclaimer. I am not scared of technology, and I don’t want to discourage lawyers from using it. The question I’m grappling with is not, “Should lawyers be making use of cutting edge technology like open source software.” The question is, “Given the actual opinions and standards that exist, are lawyers violating the ethics rules by using open source software.” So don’t attack me for trying to be anti-technology, because I’m not.
What is open source software? A program is considered open source if, “its source code is freely available to its users. Its users – and anyone else – have the ability to take this source code, modify it, and distribute their own versions of the program. The users also have the ability to distribute as many copies of the original program as they want. Anyone can use the program for any purpose; there are no licensing fees or other restrictions on the software.….The opposite of open-source software is closed-source software, which has a license that restricts users and keeps the source code from them.”(http://www.howtogeek.com/129967/htg-explains-what-is-open-source-software-and-why-you-should-care/ last checked by the author on January 25, 2017). In order to understand the ethical issue, you’ll need a brief understanding about a key ethical concern with email. I’m sorry to bore you with the history lesson, but trust me, it’s necessary.
Go back to the 90s when email first became popular. For those of use who are old enough to recall, lawyers couldn’t use email in their practice because it was unencrypted. Our duty to safeguard client confidences per Rules 1.1 and 1.6 prohibited us from using the tool. The ABA and state bars across the country deemed that unencrypted email was too insecure and that lawyers who used it weren’t taking the necessary steps to fulfill their duty of protecting clients’ confidential information. So what changed? Today email is generally still unencrypted, but lawyers use it every day. Here’s the change— congress criminalized the interception of email.
Once Congress made the interception of email a crime the powers that be then agreed that this change, when combined with other factors, meant that now lawyers had a reasonable expectation of privacy in using the medium. The key phrase is “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” The ABA issued a formal opinion in 1999 confirming that idea:
“The Committee believes that e-mail communications, including those sent unencrypted over the Internet, pose no greater risk of interception or disclosure than other modes of communication commonly relied upon as having a reasonable expectation of privacy. The level of legal protection accorded e-mail transmissions, like that accorded other modes of electronic communication, also supports the reasonableness of an expectation of privacy for unencrypted e-mail transmissions. The risk of unauthorized interception and disclosure exists in every medium of communication, including e-mail. It is not, however, reasonable to require that a mode of communicating information must be avoided simply because interception is technologically possible, especially when unauthorized interception or dissemination of the information is a violation of law. The Committee concludes, based upon current technology and law as we are informed of it, that a lawyer sending confidential client information by unencrypted e-mail does not violate Model Rule 1.6(a) in choosing that mode to communicate. This is principally because there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in its use.” ABA Commission on Ethics and Professional Responsibility Formal Opinion 99-413.
States have since followed suit and permitted the use of unencrypted email in the practice of law. What’s key here is that we see the standard clearly— the reasonable expectation of privacy. It’s important to understand that rationale for permitting such email communications, because it continues to be relevant today. As new technologies are developed, the authorities apply the same reasoning. Consider the furor over gmail and other free email services back in 2008.
In it’s Opinion 820, the New York State Bar Association opined about those free email systems. nNew York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics Opinion 820 – 2/8/08. The systems were a concern because of the business model that the systems use to keep the service free. Here’s how they work: in return for providing the email service, “the provider’s computers scan e-mails and send or display targeted advertising to the user of the service. The e-mail provider identifies the presumed interests of the service’s user by scanning for keywords in e-mails opened by the user. The provider’s computers then send advertising that reflects the keywords in the e-mail.” NYSBA Op. 820 at 2. The obvious problem is that if we’re using the email system for client work, then we’re allowing the provider to scan confidential information.
When considering whether these new email systems would be permitted, the NY authorities first considered the rationale for permitting email back in the 90s. Email was allowed because, “there is a reasonable expectation that e-mails will be as private as other forms of telecommunication and…therefore…a lawyer ordinarily may utilize unencrypted e-mail to transmit confidential information. NYSBA Op. 820 at 1. They applied that same reasoning to the question of free emails.
Even though the email messages in the current systems are scanned, the opinion noted that humans don’t actually do the scanning. Rather, it’s computers that take care of that task. Thus, they stated that “Merely scanning the content of e-mails by computer to generate computer advertising…does not pose a threat to client confidentiality, because the practice does not increase the risk of others obtaining knowledge of the e-mails or access to the e-mails’ content.” NYSBA Op. 820 at 2.
What the opinion is basically saying is that there continues to be a reasonable expectation of privacy in these email systems. Maybe the better way to phrase it is a reasonable expectation of “confidentiality,” but the idea is the same. What’s important to note is that the technology developed, but the standard that was applied remained the same.
If we take that standard and apply it to open source software, then…Houston, we have a problem. Earlier I noted that the characteristic that makes open source software “open” is that any programmer could change the source code. That’s the whole point of open source software. But that ability to change the source code is what worries me.
If any programmer could change the code to an open source program, then isn’t it possible that some version of that software could contain a virus or other nefarious element? What if the programmer installed a hidden web bug or other software device that allows the programmer to view or copy your confidential client information? Such a devious act isn’t out of the realm of possibility. In fact, it seems realistic, and such tactics are being debated in the real-life practice today. Take the recent opinion out of Alaska.
In 2016 the state of Alaska issued an opinion that dealt with the ethical propriety of lawyers using web bugs to obtain information from their adversaries/opposing parties. The Alaska authorities reviewed a case where an attorney actually utilized a bug and the Bar opined that using such tools would be an ethical violation because it “impermissibly infringes on the lawyer’s ability to preserve a client’s confidences as required by Rule 1.6.” Alaska Bar Association Ethics Opinion 2016-1. I realize that the opinion isn’t really on point— in the open source question we’re not talking about a lawyer installing a bug. I brought it up, however, because it shows that the use of those software devices is very much a reality in today’s practice.
What if a programmer installs a similar type of software device in a piece of open source software and that device allows the programmer to view, copy, and disseminate your confidential client information? Getting hacked or taken advantage of doesn’t give rise to ethical liability, per se. But there are opinions that have said that you have a duty to avoid the obvious scams. See, New York City Bar Association Formal Opinion 2015-3, April 22, 2015 (“In our view, the duty of competence includes a duty to exercise reasonable diligence in identifying and avoiding common Internet-based scams, particularly where those scams can harm other existing clients.”). Being infested with a virus/web bug certainly seems like an obvious concern, given the realities of the world today. The question is, should we have expected that to happen?
Should a reasonable lawyer have known that there is a realistic probability that some dangerous device could be installed in open source software? Should a reasonable lawyer have considered the open source software platform to be off limits because our client’s information is too vulnerable in that way? Given the open nature of the software and given the real potential of having web bugs inserted into code, do lawyers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in open source software?
My answer is no.
It seems easy for a programmer to secretly install some bug or other information viewing device. There are no controls or procedures that stop them from doing so. It is an open opportunity for any bad actor to wreak havoc and there is little to no protection against it.
A critical counter argument needs to be addressed. It is true that a programmer could still install some bug-like device even in a closed software environment. A programmer in Microsoft or Apple could do it, and we might never be the wiser. But I don’t think the question is whether it could happen — the question is whether it is likely. One would think that the corporate software developer would have quality control measures that would ferret that out. There would be supervisory procedures to avoid that type of thing from happening. Given those measures, I would think that it’s reasonable for lawyers to assume that there would not be a web bug installed in the corporate-purchased software. Even if it did occur, it would have to be some employee/programmer gone rogue. That sort of extraordinary circumstance could be detrimental to the client, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the lawyer was derelict in their ethical duties by trusting the software. It could probably still be said that the lawyer had a reasonable expectation of privacy in that corporate/closed source-created software.
One could argue that there are informal quality control measures in the open source environment. There are apparently very strong ethical underpinnings to the open source movement. Behaving unethically is looked down upon in the open source community and there is a decent amount of peer pressure on programmers to uphold those unwritten ethical standards. My concern is that there is no actual mechanism to enforce it. The only thing stopping open source programmers from installing is the communal sense of morality that discourages such behavior. The lack of any formal mechanism is problematic.
It’s the ability of almost any programmer at any time to manipulate the code that makes me believe that lawyers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using open source software. Now, I realize that that is a blanket statement. There are likely to be a variety of factors that could alter the equation. For instance, maybe the main open source software system of some sort could have excellent quality control. That’s fine, but what about the plug-ins you may download to use in connection with that tool? Maybe some open source systems will be inherently more secure than others because the cooperative that developed it adopts some quality control. Okay, so then maybe we con’t have to avoid all open source software, just the sketchy ones. I’m sure that there are issues and I confess to not having an expert understanding of the programming world, so there are surely plenty of other considerations that I haven’t accounted for. But these type of factors would simply make otherwise ethically impermissible systems permitted in some way. It wouldn’t change my overall analysis.
Here, however, is why you should take my opinion seriously…even if you think it comes from a place of relative ignorance. I have a decent understanding of technology. I also have a decent understanding of the ethics rules. Truth is, I probably have as much knowledge in both areas as any ethics investigator who would be evaluating a grievance. And if I’m leaning toward believing that open source software is an ethics violation, then that ethics investigator might be too.
Now….tell me why I’m wrong. But please be polite.
The next ethical landmine for lawyers is located in our cell phones. Specifically, I think we are very close to the point where lawyers need to have two devices— one for work, and one for our personal use. Here’s why.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that cell phone sales growth have stagnated. After years of incredible growth in sales, the pace of that growth has subsided significantly. The new frontier, the article claims, is in mobile device software. Specifically, the future lies in “frictionless computing.”
Amazon’s Echo speaker, which uses Alexa, and Snap Inc.’s new Spectacles, camera-bearing sunglasses, are examples of what Benedict Evans, partner at venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, calls “frictionless computing”—easy-to-use devices that unite applications with hardware beyond smartphones. Ben Schachter, senior analyst at Macquarie Capital, says: “Our view is the next big innovation will be from outside the device—from the software.” He expects increasing use of such software to meet entertainment, health-care, home innovation and automotive needs.
The words that scare me in that quote are “outside the device.” That’s because the increased use of cell phones to connect with external hardware by way of an installed app increases the likelihood that hackers can get access to our devices. Just this week we saw a similar concern from the medical community. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported about the vulnerability of hacking heart devices:
On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a public safety notice confirming it is possible for a hacker to remotely compromise security in St. Jude’s wireless communication network and then secretly change commands in a pacemaker or implantable defibrillator while it’s still wired to a patient’s heart….
…“As medical devices become increasingly interconnected via the internet, hospital networks, other medical devices and smartphones, there is an increased risk of exploitation of cybersecurity vulnerabilities, some of which could affect how a medical device operates,” the FDA’s Monday safety alert says.
While that isn’t frictionless computing when using a cell phone, it is an external device controlled by computers via wireless communication. In that regard, it is an analogous problem. And that problem is clear: once we start to increase the use of that type of wireless communication between devices, we increase the chance that hackers can wreak havoc. Yes, many of these opportunities to exploit our devices have existed for a while, but the concern I have is the increased chance of compromising our data. As the use of this technology grows, there are more and more opportunities for phishing, wireless hacking, etc. Thus, as frictionless computing becomes more prevalent it greatly increases the opportunity for the hackers to get at our information.
Personally, I’m willing to take the risk. I like using these devices, I understand the potential hacking problem, and I am willing to accept the downside in order to make use of this new technology. I am willing to put my personal information at risk. I am not, however, willing to put my client’s information at risk.
Many of us use our personal devices to access work information. We like to have remote access to notes apps like Evernote and cloud storage sites like DropBox. We text our clients and receive work emails, and that’s all sent to/from our personal device. It’s that same device that will be used to engage further in frictionless computing— many of us are probably Alexa addicts already, for instance. To date, we feel comfortable mixing business and personal use because we put password protections on the device and take other reasonable measures to protect client information. But at some point, vulnerabilities will increase to such an extent that the definition of what constitutes “reasonable measures” will change. I am concerned that the increased use of frictionless computing is hastening that change.
Today it might be reasonable to put a password to restrict access to the phones. But if frictionless computing is going to increase the opportunities for bad guys to hack into our devices, then it might not suffice to simply have a password or thumbprint barrier to access our phone. The prudent move might be to get another device all together for work matters. Maybe that work device won’t be used for frictionless computing at all. Maybe the security measures we take with that work-only device will be more stringent than our personal device. Then, we can make use of the wonders of frictionless computing, etc., without taking unreasonable risks that compromise client information.
Bear in mind that this isn’t about eliminating risk. Risk can never be completely eliminated. The question we need to ask is, “when does the risk expand to a point where it’s necessary to take some different action?” As usual, there is no way to discern exactly when we have crossed that line. But it’s my job to tell you when the warning signs appear. Well…boom, they’ve appeared. Keep your eyes open and make the move when you think it’s warranted. Just don’t get blindsided.
My children don’t always use actual sentences when they speak with me. Occasionally I get a “sure” or “whatever.” More often than not, however, it’s a series of audible grunts. Over the years I’ve been able to decipher these noises and I’ve come to realize that they are primitive, albeit valid attempts at communication. That’s what passes for communication at the teenage years. Grunts, moans, maybe even a raised eyebrow. When your kids are that age, you’ve got to expand what you’ll accept as a communication or you might not interact with them at all.
Just as a parent needs to broaden their view of what constitutes a communication, so too does a lawyer. A variety of sources confirm that the definition of what constitutes a “statement” or a “communication” that would trigger the rules is expanding. Consider the following case.
In 2016 a Missouri woman was indicted for suspected support of Islamic State. According to the Wall Street Journal, Safina Roe Yassin, “called for the killing of U.S. law enforcement employees and military members by retweeting posts that contained their detailed personal information…According to the indictment, one of the tweets she retweeted contained the line, Wanted to kill. According to the government, this retweet and other social media postings by Ms. Yassin signaled her active support for ISIS and her intention to communicate threats on their behalf.”
The journal went on to report, “A novel issue is how the law should treat retweets, a feature that allows Twitter users to repost other people’s tweets. In a court filing last month, Ms. Yassin’s lawyer…said his client was ‘merely reporting someone else’s statements.”
Here’s why I think this is important. It’s the first case I’ve seen where a prosecuting agency is trying to affix liability on a person as a result of something they shared on social media. It’s the first case I’ve seen where the prosecution is claiming that by redistributing the content, the retweeter is primarily responsible for the statement as if they said it themselves.
This isn’t the first time someone is getting in trouble because of something they’re posting on the internet— there are lots of cases where people face liability for making some comment on social media. but I don’t recall any other criminal matter where the defendant was being charged with being primarily liable for distributing another person’s content. Here, the defendant redistributed someone else’s statement, and the re-distributor is, therefore, being considered to have uttered the offending statement.
Ultimately, this case may fail. There are substantive criminal law issues, as well as first amendment concerns. But I’m not bringing this up because of the substance of this indictment. Rather, this case is about the expanding definition of a person’s “statement” or a “communication” and the attorney ethics implications.
If a prosecutor on the criminal world is taking this position, then it’s only a matter of time before a prosecutor in an ethics context takes the position. I can envision some ethics investigator saying that a lawyer’s retweet of someone’s statement constitutes that lawyer’s statement, or “communication” under the rules. The attorney ethics implications are significant. Consider the following hypothetical:
You’re representing a client in a particularly nasty land use application. The client wants to demolish an historic home and the local land use board is opposed to it. There is a lot of hostility between your client and the land use board because the board wants to save the structure. In an effort to put pressure on the board, your client fabricates the following statement and tweets it one evening, “East Bumble board turned down my application for a demolition permit. I don’t care—starting construction tomorrow! Firing up the bulldozer!” You retweet that statement.
You know the statement isn’t true because you were at the meeting earlier in the day where the board tabled the application without denying it. You also know that your client is overseas and has no intention of actually starting construction. He told you a few hours ago that he was going to take to Twitter just to “rattle the board’s cage a little.”
However….one of the land use board members follows you on Twitter and sees the retweet. He believes that your client might actually take the action described and, to avoid the destruction of a potentially irreplaceable historic structure, he directs the board attorney to immediately file for an injunction against your client, which she does. The board incurs a significant cost.
Could this be a misrepresentation that’s actionable under the rule? Consider that Rule 4.1 states (in part), “In the course of representing a client a lawyer shall not knowingly: (a) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person…” Does this statement qualify?
- Yes, it’s false— you know the statement is completely fabricated and that there isn’t going to be any construction
- Yes, it was made to a third person—iIt wasn’t just communicated to a third person, it was communicated to a whole lot of third persons
- Yes, it was material— the other side relied on that statement when it decided to engage in the considerable expense of filing suit
- Yes, you “knowingly” disseminated the information— that was your state of mind because you knew what you were doing.
The obvious question is whether you can be said to have made the statement. If the ethics authorities adopt the broader position that the prosecution took in the Yassin case, then yes. In a world where a retweet constitutes a person’s statement, you could be deemed to have made that false statement.
This issue would also arise any time a lawyer might make a “communication” as well. Rule 7.2(a), states that, “a lawyer may advertise services through…electronic communication…” If your partner posts on Facebook a statement saying “I am ready to accept new clients. Call me now for a free consultation!” If you share that, then you might be responsible for making the electronic communication. That might not be a problem, unless one day you share something that is not true, and you violate Rule 7.1.
A recent opinion out of the DC Bar provides a decent list of the issues you need to worry about when using social media. Here are the only two criticisms I have — and I admit that they are nit-picky criticisms.
First– it’s not exhaustive. There are a bunch of other issues that aren’t addressed here, but they get the biggies.
Second– this opinion could have been written five years ago. At least.
This week it was announced that Microsoft is buying LinkedIn. There are some hidden attorney ethics implications about which we all need to be aware.
A review of the recent news articles announcing the acquisition reveals that a key motivating factor in Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn was access to LinkedIn’s data. Of course, sharing data is nothing new. But when companies improve their ability to share our data across various platforms, my ears perk up. Not just because it’s creepy or because of obvious privacy implications. The type of data sharing they’re contemplating in the Microsoft/LinkedIn combination makes me worry about confidentiality (and other) issues.
Why they are merging:
According to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft sees a critical synergy with LinkedIn:
“LinkedIn’s users are, arguably, Microsoft’s core demographic. They also offer Microsoft something it has long sought but never had—a network with which users identify. Microsoft needs to persuade LinkedIn users to adopt that identity, and use it across as many Microsoft products as possible.
Access to those users, as well as the enormous amounts of data they throw off, could yield insights and products within Microsoft that allow it to monetize its investment in LinkedIn in ways that the professional networking site might not be able to. [Microsoft CEO] Mr. Nadella already has mentioned a few of these, including going into a sales meeting armed with the bios of participants, and getting a feed of potential experts from LinkedIn whenever Office notices you’re working on a relevant task.“
In other words, Microsoft wants to have your Outlook and other Microsoft software products speak to your LinkedIn profile. The intersection of that data is valuable — various sellers of products and services would be willing to pay for it.
It appears that Microsoft wants to be able to read through the work we do on their products like Word, review our upcoming appointments in our Outlook calendar, search for keywords in our emails, and then find connections with people with our LinkedIn connections. That’s what they are searching for — connections they could monetize.
For instance, let’s say accountant X has an Outlook Calendar appointment which sets a meeting with “Charles McKenna of Account-Soft Corp.” Microsoft could then search LinkedIn and it would learn that McKenna works for a company that sells workflow management software. Well, now Microsoft knows the accountant is in the market for workflow management software….and they could sell that knowledge to other software companies who would then direct solicitations in the accountant’s direction. That’s an annoyance for an accountant, but a potential ethics disaster if he/she were a lawyer.
Basic issue, Confidentiality:
If Microsoft scours our Word documents and emails, then there could be Rule 1.6 confidentiality issues. That’s so obvious that we don’t need to spend time talking about it now. I think the more unusual issues come from the Calendar function…
If they leverage the data in our Calendar, it could reveal our client relationships:
The substance of what we learn from the client is confidential, but so is the very existence of the lawyer-client relationship. Will the integration of these platforms make it easier for people to figure out who we represent?
Think about how much information Microsoft could piece together from our Calendar. They might see a potential client introduction (which lists Pete Smith as present), a court appearance (which lists Pete Smith as present), and a meeting for settlement purposes (which lists Pete Smith as present). It’s not going to be too tough for the Microsoft bots to figure out that Pete Smith is your client.
If they leverage data in our Calendar, it could reveal key substantive information that could harm the client:
If Microsoft looks at our Calendar they can see that we’re heading to a particular locale. They might then cross reference our LinkedIn connections and send a message to one of them that says something like, “Your connection Bruce Kramer is going to Chicago next week. Why don’t you look him up?”
That heads-up might give someone the incentive to look into our movements a bit more…and who knows what they could find. What if that info was given to a real estate agent that we know in Chicago…and maybe we are representing a successful land owner…and we’re clandestinely scouting a real estate purchase because we don’t want people to figure out that we’re there on behalf of our deep-pocketed client…because if they know, the purchaser will run up the price. That LinkedIn message tipped off the real estate agent and it could cost the client a lot of money.
If they leverage data in our Calendar, it could end up revealing a misrepresentation:
Imagine that Client A asks you to accompany them to a meeting in Los Angeles. You tell her that you can’t go because you’ll be on vacation on the East Coast. That’s not true, however. The truth is that you’ve already scheduled a meeting with a potentially new client in Los Angeles. You didn’t want Client A to know that you’d be in town because you didn’t want to have to shuffle between clients- it would just be too much work. You could have told Client A that you’d be in town but you didn’t have time to meet her, but you thought she’d be insulted. It was just easier to say you’re far away and be done with it.
Later, Client A gets a LinkedIn message that says, “Your Connection Mary Smith is going to be in Los Angeles next weekend…send her a message and try to link up!” Do you know what you are now? Busted. And not only do you have egg on your face, but you may also have committed an ethical violation.
Is the white lie that you told your client going to be considered a misrepresentation or deception per Rule 8.4(c)? That rule states: “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to (c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation…”
I know what you’re thinking…it was a half-truth. No harm no foul. Well, I searched the ethics code, and I didn’t find the term “white lie” or “half-truth” anywhere in the code. You should also note that Rule 8.4(c) does not require that the misrepresentation be “material.” It doesn’t allow you to lie about inconsequential things and there’s no modifying language- it just says that you can’t lie or deceive.
These are just a few issues. Some of these are clear ethics concerns, others are more akin to PR nightmares. Are they so terrible that we all need to get off LinkedIn right away? That might be a bit premature. After all, they only just announced the merging of the platforms- they haven’t actually done anything yet. I don’t know what dangers will actually be realized, or whether any dangers will be realized at all. What I do know is that part of being a responsible attorney in this technological age is to be diligent in thinking about these issues. As lawyers practicing in an ever-changing technological environment, we need to be aware of the potential problems. Keep your eye on the news and stay abreast about the details regarding the integration of these two platforms. Then, if you determine that you need to act, do so. That way we are “keep[ing] abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” Comment , Rule 1.1
The massive leak of confidential documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca is still sending shock waves throughout the world. It’s likely to keep reverberating for some time. We’re not any closer to learning the origin of the leak because the newspaper who disseminated the information won’t reveal their source. We don’t know if the information was stolen and distributed by an activist hacker, or leaked by a current/former employee of the law firm.¹ What we do know us that a whole lot of confidential information was released and, “the data primarily comprises e-mails, pdf files, photo files, and excerpts of an internal Mossack Fonseca database.”²
In my last threat assessment I discussed the concerns about the possibility that the firm was hacked, but there is another, equally disturbing concern. The leak could have been the work of an employee of the firm, perhaps acting as a whistleblower of sorts. In that case, what should the firm fear and what are the ethical concerns?
The thing to fear? Copycats.
Sure, the idea of whistleblowers is nothing new, but I’m concerned about people who are inspired by the Snowdens and the WikiLeaks of the world. I’m worried that high profile leaks could be inspiring others to adopt a pseudo-Robin Hood mentality. I call them Disclosure Vigilantes— those employees who feel that it’s their societal duty to expose the things they define as “wrongs.” I’m not talking about people who expose criminal conduct— I’m talking about those copycats who steal and/or reveal our clients’ confidential data and leak it to someone outside the firm in an effort to make public something that they define as an affront to society. They could be personally disgusted by someone’s “excessive wealth,” or feel compelled to “uncover the extent to which Corporate America will go to keep the average worker down”….name your cause, name your villain.
The ethical concerns? Hiring and Supervision
If there is a danger that firm employees could be Disclosure Vigilantes, then what are we doing to counteract it? We need to ask whether the firm is properly vetting all of our new hires, including those in IT. Plus, are we asking the right questions during the interview process? Does our interview process in some way consider the issue of purposeful leaks (note that I’m an ethics guy, not a labor law guy, so talk to a labor lawyer to ensure that whatever questions you ask aren’t improper from a privacy/labor law/etc., perspective). From an ethical point of view, that sort of targeted due diligence during hiring could constitute the appropriate “thoroughness” required by Rule 1.1 (Competence), and it might be the “reasonable diligence” that’s required by Rule 1.3 (Diligence).
But it goes beyond just hiring. After the employees are hired we need to manage our staff, and Rule 5.3 requires that we supervise nonlawyer personnel. Lawyers in a firm have a responsibility to ensure that our nonlawyer employees behave in a manner that’s “compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer,” and that has historically included confidentiality, among other things. But given the new reality of Disclosure Vigilanteism, that duty to supervise might be expanding to include the need to watch for morality-based intentional leaks of client information.
A savvy lawyer might see a third angle— (1) we should properly screen our new hires, (2) we should properly supervise our employees to make sure no disclosures are occurring, and…(3) maybe we should also watch for changed circumstances to our employees which could increase the probability of a purposeful disclosure. Remember, employees could change during their tenure at the firm. If that’s the case, the wise firm might ask whether we are periodically reviewing the staff to check for changed circumstances in our employees that might lead to Disclosure Vigilanteism (being cognizant, of course, of the limitations that are imposed by privacy restrictions and other labor law).
The potential for copycat Disclosure Vigilantes might be altering our responsibilities in hiring and supervising employees. I don’t want you to be that firm….the firm that finds itself in front of an ethics tribunal listening to them say, “the signs were there…you didn’t look for them”…and then hearing that dreaded phrase…you “should have known” this was going to be a problem.
¹http://www.bustle.com/articles/151771-who-leaked-the-panama-papers-the-whistleblower-had-just-one-condition, last checked by the author May 3, 2016
²http://panamapapers.sueddeutsche.de/articles/56febff0a1bb8d3c3495adf4/ last checked by the author May, 3, 2016
For years people have been warning that law firms of all sizes are major targets for cyber-criminals. If your firm didn’t take that seriously before, then there are two major hackings last week that should get your attention.
The Wall Street Journal reported that cyber criminals breached Cravath, Weil Gotshal, and several other unnamed firms (read the article here: http://on.wsj.com/1MzYlN2). The paper states that it’s not clear what (or whether) information was taken, but the focus is on the possibility of confidential information being stolen for purposes of insider trading.
The other major breach is so big that it has its own hashtag— search Twitter for #PanamaPapers or #PanamaLeaks. According to Reuters, the target was a law firm in Panama who specializes in setting up offshore companies. Hackers stole data from the firm and provided that data to journalists who promptly revealed it to the public (read the article here: http://reut.rs/25GEy4X). The information allegedly reveals a network of offshore loans. According to the BBC, the stolen data reveals how the law firm, “has helped clients launder money, dodge sanctions and avoid tax” (read the BBC’s article here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-35918844). Political figures and friends of popular politicians are allegedly implicated, according to the report.
My concern is not about the obvious political ramifications. My concern is about the ethical ramifications to lawyers. The danger of hacking is real.
No report has implicated any type of ethical wrongdoing on the part of any firm. That needs to be restated and made abundantly clear: there has been no report of any evidence of ethical impropriety by any of the law firms mentioned in the news. I am bringing this to your collective attention because it should serve as a warning. Confidential client information was stolen from that law firm in Panama….which reminds us that we are targets.
All lawyers are targets. Small firms, large firms, in-house counsel, government lawyers, you name it. The bad guys know that lawyers are the custodians of valuable information and they are coming after us in a big way. The message for all of us is clear: you could be subject to an ethics grievance if you don’t take proper steps to secure your clients’ information.
The responsibility to protect our client information is nothing new. However, these recent events require us apply an increased sense of urgency to evaluating our compliance with that duty. Have you, or your firm, taken the necessary steps to adequately protect your clients’ information? Have you considered the fact that bad guys could be targeting you? What steps have you taken to counteract the potential piracy that could be aimed at your clients’ information?
You could be darn sure that someone is going to be asking those questions to the firms that were targeted in the hacks. Maybe you need to put yourself in their position and ask, “how would we fare if that review was directed toward us?”
Our duty of competence requires that we take appropriate steps to protect our clients’ confidential information. And remember that you, as the lawyer, have the primary ethical duty, not your IT people. Furthermore, various ethics opinions have held that, in some circumstances, the lawyer needs to understand the underlying technology itself.
If these issues weren’t on the front burner in your office before, these two hacks should be causing you to shift your priorities.
This is the first case I’ve seen where someone sued another person for making a false claim on the internet…and won. Here a lawyer represented someone in their divorce. The client was unhappy with the lawyer and went on an online rant. The problem was that the rant was full of lies, so the lawyer sued for defamation. The lawyer won at trial and on appeal…she got $350,000 in damages. Yikes! If you want to read the decision, you could find it here.
A recent opinion of out New York says that our LinkedIn profile may be considered an advertisement. Maybe more importantly, the opinion imposes a duty upon lawyers to periodically review their social media profile. I call it the “I told you so” opinion because I’ve been telling this to lawyers for some time in my ethics CLE programs.
Sure, the opinion is limited- it’s out of one particular state and it’s only advisory. But the rationale is solid and I could envision it being adopted in other jurisdictions.
Furthermore, the practical implications could be significant. For instance, any misleading statements on your profile would now be governed by the content restrictions contained in Rule 7.1; if you’re in a jurisdiction where disclaimers are require on ads, you may need to insert a disclaimer into your LinkedIn profile; maybe the concept applies to all social media sites that you use for professional purposes…and the list of concerns could go on. To get all of the details, download the full NYCLA Opinion 748 here.
I cover this concept in my ethics CLE program, “Tech, Tock, Tech, Tock: Social media and the countdown to your ethical demise.” Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want some more information.