General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 3
April/May 2000

Sidestepping the Land Mines

There is an easy way to sidestep all of these problems: Create a formal technology policy. Even a simple policy can make clear the following:

  1. Anything stored on the computer or sent through e-mail is subject to inspection and review, and your employees should not-even if they are issued or given the ability to use a password-expect any privacy in the computer systems.
  2. Your firm owns everything on the computer systems, including e-mail and documents.
  3. Information such as a client list is confidential, must be maintained as such, and may not be copied.

There's nothing wrong with taking the kitchen sink approach when assembling your firm's technology policy. The more you address, the more protection you're likely to have when employees leave. You might want to consider the following issues:

  1. Computer Use-Establish rules relating to how employees can use e-mail, the Internet, and the computer itself. For instance, you may restrict your employees use of e-mail to work-related use. Or, you may allow your employees to use e-mail for personal purposes provided they do not send large files (like games) to others. You also might restrict use of the Internet to limit the amount of time employees can spend browsing the web.
  2. Computer Security-Establish rules relating to passwords and how they are used. Most important, establish the rule that passwords are the property of the firm and must be disclosed to the firm when demanded. This way, even if your employees utilize passwords to protect documents or prevent access to information stored on their computers, the firm will still have a way to access the systems.
  3. Trademarks-Although this is a relatively new phenomenon, some lawyers have associated themselves with a particular word, logo, or phrase (even telephone numbers can be considered). When a word, logo, or phrase is associated with a source of goods and/or services, it can become a trademark or service mark, which may be registered and protected by federal law. Once registered, the trademark or service mark holder has the exclusive right to use the mark in a particular industry. Thus, you may want to clarify who owns trademarks or service marks used in connection with your firm.

The trend among firms responsibly using technology is obvious: Establish formal policies and advise your employees of those policies (some firms even display a reminder on the computer sign-on screen reminding employees that use of the computer is subject to the firm's formal technology policy). This is the best way to avoid the myriad problems and legal issues discussed above, especially in areas where there is little or no reported case law. It is also the best way to avoid the surprises that can pop up when employees leave your firm, and to protect your firm and its assets.

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