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The Synergy of Ethics & Technology September/October 2018 Facts & Findings

This article was originally published in Facts & Findings – July/August 2018 issue. To read the full publication please Log In to your personal NALA account.  

In a utopian world, lawyers and paralegals would easily use technology to run their law office, and they would all work in perfect harmony, but that is not the case in the real world. In the real world, the latest technologies can be daunting to learn yet they have the power to change the way most paralegals accomplish tasks. New technologies have revolutionized legal processes, functions, and the way many law firms operate.

Due to the nature of their work, paralegals have a lot of contact with the latest technological discoveries. Still, they are limited by several ethics and should pay attention to them while working with various programs. The collision between the continuous development of new technologies and ethics rules has given birth to all sorts of challenges for paralegals. It is important for paralegals to follow the ethics rules and be aware when it comes to online discussions and private client information.

Electronic mail

E-mails have become common in our everyday lives. While they do not seem so threatening, they should be used cautiously. All the states that have embraced the American Bar Association’s opinion on the use of emails are required to follow restrictive procedures before sending electronic messages that contain private client data. Paralegals should take supplementary actions to ensure they preserve the integrity of information they send via online by using various software that allows documents to be encrypted and thus secure. This also includes removing the metadata that usually contains information about the author, as well as the date and time or other confidential data. This will prevent the emails from ending up in the hands of ill-intended parties.

Using mobile phones

Cell phones present many risks as a lot of individuals use them in public places, even though their conversations might be overheard. Mobile devices depend on radio waves to broadcast signals, so the risk of malicious interception is a lot higher than with e-mails. The best approach would be to discuss these risks with the client, and the paralegal should make sure that the consent regarding mobile phones is secured through an agreement.

Sending files by mistake

Besides the dangers represented by the exposure of electronic mail or the interception of cell phone conversations, technology has made it a lot easier for legal professionals to make mistakes when referring to client confidentiality. Sadly, the opportunity for revealing private information is real, so paralegals must do whatever is necessary to avoid disclosure. Inadvertent disclosure can occur in many ways at work – from sending a fax or e-mail to the wrong number/address to negligent talk in elevators or restaurants to sharing work information with family members. Those working in the legal field should not share information with anyone other than their department.

Accessing various files through outside service providers

Access to electronically kept documents by third parties is also an important matter that raises a problem with ethics. It’s not at all strange for law firms to use the services of outside operators to assist with office administration. During the 90’s, the American Bar Association’s ethics committee stated that a law firm could allow a computer maintenance operator to access confidential documents, but with the recommendation that the law firm should as well secure the service provider’s assurance of confidentiality by requesting a written statement.

Accidental creation of attorney-client relationship

The Internet gives many occasions for casual conversation with potential clients and equally as many opportunities for misinterpreting the intentions of attorneys or paralegals. So, a relatively frequent cause of concern regarding chat rooms or other types of electronic communication remains the possibility to create a lawyer-client relationship by accident. In order to prevent such a relationship, both attorneys and paralegals should hold back from obtaining private details from other conversation participants and avoid offering legal advice suited to particular situations.

Some states require disclaimers to be published in order to explain that articles posted on online discussion or responses to e-mail questions should not be considered as legal recommendations and are not meant to generate lawyer-client relationships.

Paralegals who search for clients on behalf of an attorney risk violating the unauthorized practice of law regulations and independent paralegals who work on the internet should research the types of activities that are considered to be the unauthorized practice of law in their states.

Ready. Steady. Go.

Being completely aware of the confidentiality rules, searching for the opinions of other legal professionals, and keeping up with the latest trends in technology can be really useful for paralegals, helping them avoid all types of ethical risks related to electronic communication.

Paralegals must at all times refrain from discussing delicate matters or using doubtful devices or procedures, especially wireless networks.

Special care must be taken to avoid soliciting clients or giving a wrong impression that a lawyer-client relationship was formed as a result of faulty communications.

Considering all these aspects and coping with the most modern electronic advantages, paralegals can successfully manage all issues that can occur and turn what should have been a clash between ethics and technology into a genuine cooperation.

About the Author: Noelia Vecchio is a litigation paralegal with experience in medical malpractice, debt collections, foreclosure, insurance defense, and personal injury. She joined The Law Offices of Sean M. Cleary in 2002, where she provides office support for attorneys in all that concerns civil litigation, personal injury and document preparation. She loves the challenge of investigating, gathering the necessary documentation to build a case, talking to clients and witnesses and preparing files for court.