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Is there anything new under the sun? Here, forward-thinkers offer ideas to stir the imagination and identify where innovation is lurking, just waiting to help lawyers improve their practices and their bottom lines.
1. Be aware of the dangers of metadata. When you create or edit just about any document on your computer (like Microsoft Word, MS Excel or Corel WordPerfect files), hidden information about you and the edits you make is automatically created within the document file. This information, in case you haven’t heard of it before, is called metadata—which can be simply described as “data about data.” Think of it as a concealed level of extra information that is automatically created and embedded in every computer file as you work on that file. It is dangerous because it can include past edits, deleted text or tracked changes, and information about others who work on the document—the kinds of things you likely don’t want the client or opposing counsel to see. Thus, if you are e-mailing documents in native format to others, you may be unwittingly sending confidential information to them. Ouch.
2. Remove metadata from your documents. Being aware of metadata is just the start. The important part is to reduce or eliminate metadata from your documents before you send them out. Converting files to PDF with Adobe Acrobat or other PDF creators will usually strip out most metadata. For this reason, many firms have adopted a practice of sending only locked PDF documents to clients or opposing counsel, especially if the recipient doesn’t need to edit the document. Also, newer versions of Microsoft Office include features that can identify and strip metadata from documents created in Office applications. There are also metadata scrubbers that will automatically prompt a user to clean metadata from outgoing attachments. Metadata Assistant (www.payneconsulting.com) is one such product that is widely used in law offices.
3. Don’t share or compromise your passwords. You wouldn’t give your car keys to a complete stranger, so don’t do the same with your passwords!
4. Beware of e-mail address Auto-Complete. Having your e-mail software automatically fill in recipients’ addresses is certainly helpful when it comes to saving a few keystrokes or having to remember an e-mail address. But it is also a recipe for disaster: Too often we are hurried and do not confirm an address that the software has filled in before hitting Send. Oops! Just about everyone who has used the Auto-Complete function will tell you they’ve accidentally sent an e-mail to the wrong person. Save yourself the potential exposure to a confidentiality breach by turning Auto-Complete off.
5. Who the heck is email@example.com? When adding e-mail addresses to your contacts list, you want to enter full names so it is obvious who a message is going to, since the contact’s full name will then appear in your To line. When a person is using a generic address like firstname.lastname@example.org, for example, you may have to type the full name in the contacts file as “James Bond.”
6. Double-check before you hit Send . Building on the previous two tips, before you touch that Send button, you should make it a practice of always checking and verifying that the e-mail addresses in the To field are the correct ones.
7. Check your spam box daily. Spam filters are essential for keeping junk mail out of your inbox. But they can be dangerous, too, because they could erroneously catch a message from your client, opposing counsel, the court or the like. This is called a “false-positive.” So if you don’t check your spam box daily, you could miss an important message (like one that affects a brief you’re in the throes of completing). Most spam filters let you create a “white-list” of parties you know and trust so messages from them will never be stopped.
8. Don’t assume that an e-mail was delivered. From reading the previous tip, you know of at least one reason e-mails don’t get through and read. There are loads of others—including e-mail server problems, a wrong e-mail address, or the message went through but the person didn’t open it, just to name a few. For this reason, you should always follow up on important messages that you send, and you should always reply to important messages sent to you (even if it is just an initial acknowledgement of receipt). This way everyone involved knows that critical e-mails have been safely received.
9. Don’t use the “Remember Me” feature. It is so tempting to let Windows and other computer applications remember your login names and passwords when they offer to do this. However, while it may make sense for your NYTimes.com access, you should never—repeat, never—have Windows or other programs remember your password for access to any program or system that has sensitive or confidential information in it (as in your computer logon, accounting systems, bank accounts, practice management software access and so on). In the law firm context, this is especially critical for those who use the family computer at home. Letting Windows remember a username and password gives anyone sitting at that computer full access to the program and all the data in it. Don’t do it!
10. Never use a public computer to log on to your firm network. Let’s repeat again—never. Public computers (like those in libraries and hotel business centers) often have spyware on them that surreptitiously captures login names, passwords and other data typed in by people using them. That information could be used to compromise the integrity of your network and leave you open to breaches of attorney- client confidentiality. For this reason, typing usernames, passwords or other confidential information on a public computer is an absolute do-not-do.
11. Don’t let the bad guys in the back door. A compromised computer that has remote access credentials can bypass firm security and let bad guys or malware get on to your firm network. Require all remote users to have the same level of Internet security on their computers as the law firm has on its. Any computer seeking to access your network must use firewalls, antivirus software, anti-spyware protections and the like.
12. Enforce and regularly update your technology use policy. Remember, rules only work when they are current and enforced. Every law office should have an up-to-date and enforced technology use policy (and incorporating the foregoing tips is a good place to start), a policy that clearly sets out what people can and can’t do when using office computers and when working on client matters on computers outside the firm’s walls.
■ Thomas S. Clay , is a principal of Altman Weil, Inc., with expertise in strategic planning, management, and mergers and acquisitions. He serves on the College of Law Practice Management’s Futures Committee and as a judge for its InnovAction Awards.
■ Diane M. Costigan is a certified executive, career and life coach who works with lawyers on leadership, career strategy, communication, business development and time and stress management.
■ Joan Feldman is Managing Editor of Law Practice .
■ Ron Friedmann is Senior Vice President of Marketing for Integreon, a legal and financial outsourcing service. A non-practicing lawyer, he is a Trustee of the College of Law Practice Management.
■ Jordan Furlong, a lawyer and legal journalist, publishes Law21 , an information hub for the extraordinary changes underway within the profession. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Bar’s National magazine and Chair of the College of Law Practice Management’s InnovAction Awards.
■ Stephen P. Gallagher is President of LeadershipCoach and a former practice management advisor for the New York State Bar Association. He provides a broad range of coaching services directed at facilitating positive change.
■ Steve Matthews is principal of Stem Legal Web Enterprises, providing Web expertise for the legal profession. He is a member of Law Practice ’s Editorial Board and blogs at www.stemlegal.com/strategyblog.
■ Jeffrey L. Nischwitz is the author of Think Again! Innovative Approaches to the Business of Law ( ABA, 2007). He is a trainer and coach who provides customized and practical programs on achieving results for lawyers and law firms.
■ Jamie J. Spannhake is an associate in the commercial litigation department of Dewey & LeBoeuf, working a reduced-hours schedule. She is also a certified holistic health counselor.
■ Ronald W. Staudt is Professor of Law and Associate Vice President for Law, Business and Technology at Chicago-Kent College of Law. He is also Director of the law school’s Center for Access to Justice & Technology.