The Ethics of Technology
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP
Paralegals should stay current on technology. There are the standard online research services of Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis, which you have probably used for years, but these companies are constantly updating and expanding not only their information, but the ways it can be searched and the costs for research. A good paralegal knows the best and most efficient ways to find information, and the cost comparison of each method, or at least knows how to get this information quickly when required. Keeping up with the best ways to find information on the World Wide Web is also a constant challenge. Many legal periodicals now devote at least a small space in each issue to listings of helpful web sites.
New software is constantly being released, including updated versions of programs you already use, such as word processing programs, spreadsheets, schedulers, database programs, and litigation management programs. To be able to evaluate whether these programs and upgrades are useful, you must use them and/or find out about their features. Many software vendors offer online demonstrations and there are often articles on software in legal periodicals.
Keep up with Internet search techniques. The best websites and search methods are constantly changing. It is our responsibility to do things as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, without sacrificing quality.
While electronic docketing and calendaring systems are wonderful tools and do a great job of counting dates and in some cases, applying rules to calculate future deadlines, the information is only as accurate as the original data entered into them. Regardless of who is responsible for calendaring or docketing deadlines, someone should at least spot-check that the deadlines were entered correctly. Everyone can make an error and it is better to catch it early than to miss a deadline.
Cell Phones and Cameras
Cell phones are a wonderful convenience but conversations are easily overhead. Paralegals should be aware of who may be able to overhear a conversation. It's a good idea to use a code phrase or shorthand if you must convey confidential information in a public place. Additionally, most cell phones now include cameras. Others may easily take photos or videos of documents as well as attorneys, witnesses, and other information.
Paralegals should work with their attorneys to remind clients and witnesses that anything posted on social networks may be viewed by opposing parties and opposing counsel. Recently, a man was sued for libel for a Twitter posting regarding a moldy apartment. The safest thing to do is to keep social networking sites private. Of course, paralegals should not post anything to a social networking site that is confidential.
Correspondence such as cease and desist letters and the like may be posted by opposing parties to their websites or social networking sites. That possibility should be taken into account when deciding how to communicate with an opposing party and when drafting correspondence.
Although voice mail is another wonderful convenience, it is not without potential risks:
- Be sure to identify yourself as a paralegal.
- Don't say anything in a voice mail you wouldn't want posted on a freeway billboard or on the Internet.
- Remember that others can probably access your voice mail without your knowledge, listening to, forwarding, and deleting messages.
- If you have something confidential to say, leave a message asking that person to call you back.
- Many law firms and corporations automatically generate a an audio file of all voice mails so anything you say may be easily preserved
Most of us rely on email for the majority of communications with coworkers, vendors, clients, witnesses, and opposing counsel. However, email has its own potential ethical issues. There are a few general rules:
- E-mail messages are backed up each night when your computer system is backed up, so even deleted e-mails can be retrieved.
- Identify yourself as a paralegal in business e-mails.
- Write with the same level of formality as with other business communications.
- Print e-mails to include in the file if that information would have normally been put in a memo or letter.
- Do not copy clients on emails to experts and opposing counsel. Forward the email to clients to avoid clients accidentally hitting "reply all."
Take the time to be sure you are sending correct version of the document at issue, and that the attorney and client are revising, commenting on, and ultimately signing correct version. If appropriate, covert the document to a PDF or remove the metadata using a tool such as the one available with Word 2007. Although not all metadata will be removed, it is better than leaving in all revisions.
Once the document is finalized, exchange full copies of the document and signature pages, not just the signature page. It can be a PDF or a hard copy, but it should be clear which version of the document was signed. As an extra precaution, have all parties initial each page. That could be helpful in verif ying which document the parties intended to sign.
Communications via Email with Opposing Counsel
Do not assume that emails with urgent info, such as the need to cancel or postpone depositions, etc., will be read and voice mails will be heard. And despite the ease with which cancellations may be made, attorneys and parties must still have a defensible reason for doing so.
The digital age is an exciting time, but be sure not let electronic conveniences override your ethical responsibilities.
Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Paralegal Division and a past President of the Division. She is a frequent speaker on paralegal ethics and intellectual property and the lead author of the Division's Paralegal Ethics Handbook published by West Legalworks.
If you have any questions regarding any ethical issue, please contact the Professional Ethics Committee.
Originally published in the Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright 2010 by the Paralegal Division, State Bar of Texas.