Solo Newsletter

Volume 11, no. 2

Are Secrets Safe in Your Office

By jennifer j. rose

There’s a leak in your office. And it isn’t in the plumbing. Your doors are locked at night, filing cabinets sealed with titanium bands, e-mail encrypted, and the passwords needed to access your computer system are changed weekly. But secrets are slipping out of your office.

Your star secretary, efficient and organized, typing away at the speed of light, able to conquer the latest technology in a single bound, the steam engine of your office, just can’t keep her mouth shut. She really didn’t mean to let it slip that Jane Smith had been in the office when a caller inquired, but the words just fell out. The urge to reveal the details of that interesting case to her best friend was overwhelming. And you thought she was a fantastic secretary.

Your license to practice depends upon your ability to keep secrets. Remember that oath you took to keep client confidences inviolate? That promise extends to all who operate within the domain of your law office. Your time may be your stock-in-trade, but are you going allow spilled beans to besmirch and tarnish your reputation? Secrets are just as much a part of a lawyer’s inventory as time, and surely more important than a lawyer’s talent. Misspelling judgment and not knowing the difference between counsel and council hardly ever give rise to malpractice and ethics complaints. A spell-checker will heal those orthographic slips, but there’s no way to retrieve client confidences once they’re out the door.

Simply telling staff to keep mum isn’t enough. Create a culture of confidentiality within your office. A written agreement created when staff is hired isn’t enough. Train, explain, and reinforce to get the message across. Create a script, outlining exactly what office staff may reveal and what they may not, and post it prominently. One lawyer cleverly placed a small photo of a sinking ship with pink lipstick marks on a secretary’s desk, just to keep the message “Loose Lips, Pink Slips” alive. Repeat the message over and over again, testing to be sure your staff embraces the need to keep quiet. Ask a colleague, friend, or even a family member to act as a mystery shopper, calling your office in your absence to see how much information can be extracted from your secretary. Office staff who can’t obey the rules of client privacy should be treated the same as those who embezzle—working for someone else.

The last person you want working for you is Deep Throat.

jennifer j. rose, editor-in-chief of GPSolo magazine, can be contacted (in secret) at jenniferrose@abanet.org.

 

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