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Post on January 20th, 2019

The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has issued two recent opinions addressing security of client protected information.

ABA Formal Opinion 477R

Securing Communication of Protected Client Information.  The Opinion states:

A lawyer generally may transmit information relating to the representation of a client over the internet without violating the Model Rules of Professional Conduct where the lawyer has undertaken reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized access.

However, a lawyer may be required to take special security precautions to protect against the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information when required by an agreement with the client or by law, or when the nature of the information requires a higher degree of security.

The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility recommended seven steps lawyers should take to prevent disclosures

  • Understand the nature of the threat. Consider the sensitivity of the client’s information and whether it poses a greater risk of cyber theft. If there is a higher risk, greater protections may be warranted.
  • Understand how client confidential information is transmitted and where it is stored. Have a basic understanding of how your firm manages and accesses client data. Be aware of the multiple devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets that are used to access client data, as each device is an access point and should be evaluated for security compliance.
  • Understand and use reasonable electronic security measures. Have an understanding of the security measures that are available to provide reasonable protections for client data.  What is reasonable may depend on the facts of each case, and may include security procedures such as using secure Wi-Fi, firewalls and anti-spyware/anti-virus software and encryption.
  • Determine how electronic communications about clients’ matters should be protected. Discuss with the client the level of security that is appropriate when communicating electronically. If the information is sensitive or warrants extra security, consider safeguards such as encryption or password protection for attachments. Take into account the client’s level of sophistication with electronic communications. If the client is unsophisticated or has limited access to appropriate technology protections, alternative nonelectronic communication may be warranted.
  • Label client confidential information. Mark communications as privileged and confidential to put any unintended lawyer recipient on notice that the information is privileged and confidential. Once on notice, under Model Rule 4(b)Respect for Rights of Third Persons, the inadvertent recipient would be on notice to promptly notify the sender.
  • Train lawyers and nonlawyer assistants in technology and information security. Under Model Rules 5.1 and 5.3, take steps to ensure that lawyers and support personnel in the firm understand how to use reasonably secure methods of communication with clients. Also, follow up with law firm personnel to ensure that security procedures are adhered to, and periodically reassess and update security procedures.
  • Conduct due diligence on vendors providing communication technologyTake steps to ensure that any outside vendor’s conduct comports with the professional obligations of the lawyer.


ABA Formal Opinion 483

Lawyers’ Obligations After an Electronic Data Breach or Cyberattack.  The opinion informs that:

Model Rule 1.4 requires lawyers to keep clients “reasonably informed” about the status of a matter and to explain matters “to the extent reasonably necessary to permit a client to make an informed decision regarding the representation.”  Model Rules 1.1, 1.6, 5.1 and 5.3, as amended in 2012, address the risks that accompany the benefits of the use of technology by lawyers.

When a data breach occurs involving, or having a substantial likelihood of involving, material client information, lawyers have a duty to notify clients of the breach and to take other reasonable steps consistent with their obligations under these Model Rules.