Lawyers must safeguard client documents
April 12, 2006
BC lawyers are reminded of the critical importance of safeguarding client documents and records at all times. The reminder is timely in light of a recent media report about client documents of a law firm being found around a dumpster and on the street nearby.
Chapter 5 of the Professional Conduct Handbook sets out a lawyer's professional obligation to safeguard client privilege and confidentiality:
Duty of confidentiality
1. A lawyer shall hold in strict confidence all information concerning the business and affairs of the client acquired in the course of the professional relationship, regardless of the nature or source of the information or of the fact that others may share the knowledge, and shall not divulge any such information unless disclosure is expressly or impliedly authorized by the client, or is required by law or by a court. [footnote omitted]
2. A lawyer shall take all reasonable steps to ensure the privacy and safekeeping of a client's confidential information.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner of BC is concerned about this issue and wishes to remind lawyers that they and their firms are subject to the Personal Information Protection Act. This private sector privacy legislation requires lawyers to take reasonable measures to protect clients' personal information from risks of unauthorized access, use, disclosure and disposal, and sets out consequences for violation.
Please make certain that your firm has a secure system in place for safeguarding client documents and records, including at the point of disposal. Even the best systems can fail if not properly monitored. All lawyers and staff in your firm should be reminded of their obligations to safeguard client materials. You should also review your firm's policies for disposal of materials within the office and any arrangements with outside storage facilities or shredding and recycling suppliers. If you have any concerns about weaknesses in your storage or destruction systems, please take steps to rectify them.
Here are examples of safeguards to consider:
- Maintain client files in secure areas and consider locking file cabinets when lawyers or staff are not in the office.
- Do not allow lawyers, staff or custodial staff to place client material directly into a garbage or recycling bin. The material should be placed in a bin for cross-cut shredding. Shredding should be done on-site by either your staff or a reputable outside provider, and prior to any recycling or disposal.
- When using an outside provider for on-site shredding, someone in the firm should monitor the work and obtain a certificate of destruction.
- Ensure your computer network is secure from intrusion, such as by maintaining proper firewalls. Secure your computers (especially laptops) physically and with password protection. Laptops leaving the office should be encrypted.
- Erase or destroy computer hard drives before you discard, sell or donate them. Complete erasure requires special software, following the standards of the RCMP and the US Department of Defence.
- Have your staff enter into a confidentiality agreement respecting confidential information in the firm.
- Regularly train and remind staff about firm policies for protecting information, and note the consequences of non-compliance.
- Avoid leaving files or computers in your car and, when working on files at home, consider keeping those in a locked cabinet. Ensure proper disposal of papers through your office, rather than at home.
Document storage and disposal is but one aspect of client confidentiality. It is equally important that everyone in the firm refrains from reading client information in public places where it could be seen, or from discussing client matters in public where they could be overheard.
For more on handling information securely, please see Closed files: Retention and Disposition in the Practice Support section of the Law Society website. The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner also publishes practical information for safeguarding private information, and touches on several of the points noted above: see www.oipc.bc.ca .
If you have specific enquiries about client confidentiality and privilege, please contact one of our Practice Advisors at the Law Society office.
The Law Society Award, offered every two years, honours the truly exceptional within the profession and legal community, based on the criteria of integrity, professional achievement, service and reform. The Award is made in recognition of the lifetime contributions of an individual, chiefly for the advancement of the profession or the law, but public service outside the legal profession will also be considered. The deadline for nominations this year is Friday, May 5.
Lawyers and members of the judiciary are invited to nominate a candidate to receive the Law Society Award. When submitting a nomination, please include the candidate's curriculum vitae, your views on why he or she should receive the Award and any letters you wish to submit in support of the nomination. Please note that a nomination must be accompanied by background material for it to be considered by the Selection Committee. Please send your nomination to:
Law Society Award Selection Committee
c/o Denise Palmer, Member Communications Manager
8th Floor - 845 Cambie Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 4Z9
Fax: 604 646-5913
For more information, see About the Law Society / Honours and Awards at www.lawsociety.bc.ca.
The Pacific Legal Technology Conference returns to Vancouver on October 13, 2006. Set aside the day for you and your staff to join us at the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre and learn the latest that technology has to offer. This year the Conference will be held in conjunction with the ABA Law Practice Management Section's fall meeting and will feature an encore presentation of the best-ever sessions from ABA TechShow.
Watch for details, coming soon.
The Law Society has an immediate opening for a staff lawyer to serve as a custodian in managing and winding up law practices and to monitor and advise external custodians. It is the Society's statutory responsibility to seek court orders for the custodianship of law practices whenever this is necessary for the protection of clients, such as when a lawyer has neglected or abandoned a practice, has died or has been suspended or disbarred.
As Staff Lawyer, Custodianships, you will work with our team of paralegals, administrative assistants and custodial clerks to protect the interests of the clients of each law practice in a timely and responsive manner. You will be responsible for managing time-sensitive and volume-intensive litigation.
To be considered for this position, you must have a minimum of five years practice experience and be a member of, or admissible to, the Law Society of BC. You must possess superior organizational, personal and communication skills, work well in a team environment and be available to travel throughout the province.
We are seeking a candidate who has a successful career and a broad base of practice experience, preferably with some litigation experience. Advanced IT skills will be a definite asset.
We offer a competitive salary and an attractive benefits package. All interested applicants are encouraged to submit a resume and references by Friday, May 5, 2006 to:
The Human Resources Department
The Law Society of British Columbia
845 Cambie Street, 8th Floor
Vancouver, BC V6B 4Z9
Fax: 604 443-5747