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E-Griping: Not on My Blog

published March 26, 2007

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The legal profession is a demanding, fast-paced industry that approaches stress more as a form of currency than as an occupational hazard. As a result, perhaps more quickly than in other fields, stress can build up, and you have to find a channel through which to safely vent it. The question is "How (and where, when, and to whom) is it safe to vent?"

Meeting a trusted friend for a happy-hour drink and exchanging war stories is one matter—while no promises of confidentiality are explicit here, it is safe to assume that your friend will not relate your woes to others. (If he does, he's no friend of yours!) To be similarly blunt and candid in email or the blogosphere is to enter a potentially dangerous gray area.

In recent decades, email and other forms of electronic communication have become pervasive, as they are quick and easy methods for keeping in constant touch with professional contacts and friends. Many email platforms also archive messages, making organizing correspondence almost irresistibly easy.

In its infancy, email resembled traditional written mail. Today, email has metamorphosed, taking on a loose and informal style, even in terms of the subjects that are discussed and dissected through the medium.

If you are a paralegal, information pertaining to a particular case or client is held in the same strict confidentiality that applies to attorneys, and it is not unprecedented for electronic communications between client and attorney—including emails—to qualify as privileged information. In order to clearly dictate the privacy expectations of electronic communiqués, many firms have crafted detailed procedures for protecting the confidentiality of all electronic communication.

Maintaining the security of electronic communiqués can be a daunting task, as even the most sophisticated equipment meets constant challenge from tech-savvy hackers. Furthermore, most companies have IT teams that track and preserve all electronic data for backup purposes. As a result, even long-since-deleted emails are rarely eradicated without a trace. Invasive as they seem, such measures are intended to safeguard information in case of technological glitches and ensure productivity is not lost to Internet wandering.

On the other hand, attempting to evade company software by switching to a personal public-domain email account can put messages at greater risk of exposure to malicious programs, viruses, and worms.

Under certain circumstances, sensitive information shared with a third party can lose its privileged status, and this is what paralegals ought to be most concerned about.

Even the smallest, most innocent lapse in judgment when composing an email can threaten privilege claims and result in grave consequences. Personal blogs and social-networking websites are also popular these days, but posting too much information—or being careless in posts—can unintentionally damage a reputation, reveal confidential information, and spell trouble.

Blogs written by lawyers and paralegals are abundant on the Internet, but most of them have one thing in common: they do not discuss the specifics of ongoing cases. Some paralegals go so far as to post anonymously in order to keep their comments from jeopardizing a current or future job. Despite the author's intention, a blog can be interpreted at the reader's whim, and posts containing strong opinions can have equally strong consequences.

It is incumbent on paralegals to remain vigilant and ensure they never—intentionally or accidentally—reveal sensitive information to a third party.

Confidential information is frequently threatened when paralegals use email for work-related griping. Whether their emails are about coworkers, cases, a person's plans to switch firms or move, or any other personal information of a sensitive nature, once these juicy tidbits are discovered, the cat's out of the bag.

While the severity of the fallout will vary according to the email's subject matter, consequences can range from personal embarrassment to loss of a client's trust to a tarnished professional reputation. In the most extreme cases, it is not uncommon for a breach of confidentiality to not only cost a paralegal his current job but also shut him out of the legal profession altogether.

Truth be told, the same factors that make paralegal work stressful also make it too sensitive to talk about in specific detail, especially when it comes to money and reputations. So while paralegals will always face stress, the trick is to find a healthy way to deal with that stress. Thankfully, there are strategies that can help you get some relief.

Some articles suggest introducing a five- to 10-minute period into staff meetings wherein employees can be frank about emotional, personal, or professional stress originating from particular clients or cases. Such gripe-fests are intended to allow professionals to work through problems constructively and professionally.

The list of people exposed or burned by past emails continues to grow, and in the legal field, where scrutiny and stress levels reach their peaks, these concerns are paramount. By far, the best solution to today's electronic privacy concerns is to keep potentially sensitive information out of print—or keep it to yourself.

Remember, even if you absolutely need to get something off your chest, someone else might be eavesdropping.

published March 26, 2007

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