Tuesday, May 23, 2017

New ABA Ethics Opinion on duties related to the use of modern technology -- UPDATED

The ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility recently issued Formal Ethics Opinion 477, which updates Formal Ethics Opinion 99-413, and which addresses different duties related to the use of modern technology.

The opinion concludes that "[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."

This does not strike me as new or surprising.  It essentially reinforces a duty already in place in Rule 1.6(c) of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct which states that a lawyer "shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client."

What is new (but I don't know if surprising) is that the committee declined to draw a bright line as to when encryption or other security measures would be required. Instead, the committee recommended that lawyers undergo a “fact-based analysis” that includes evaluating factors such as the sensitivity of the information, the likelihood of disclosure if additional safeguards are not employed, the cost of employing additional safeguards, the difficulty of implementing the safeguards, and the extent to which the safeguards adversely affect the lawyer’s ability to represent clients.  Thus, some cases may require lawyers to use encryption, while others might not.  

For a good explanation of the opinion go here, and here.

UPDATE 5/23/17:   Formal Opinion 477 has been revised to clarify that the opinion does not alter Formal Ethics Opinion 11-459 and to note that the change in Model Rule 1.6(c) supported 11-459. There is no substantive change in the opinion. The revised opinion can be found here.  For a good analysis of the opinion go here.

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