March 2003  Volume 29, Issue 2
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How to Commit Malpractice with a Computer
by Storm Evans
The way you treat the information on your computers can jeopardize your compliance with ethics rules. Here are ways you can cause problems for yourself and your clients-along with recommendations for avoiding each trouble spot.

Ignore Computer Security. Protect against information theft and destruction. Have a password-protection system on all computers. Be sure there's a firewall between your client data and the Internet. Tell everyone to log off their computers when they leave their desks for the night.

Misuse E-mail. E-mail could be intercepted at any point in the elaborate network that comprises the Internet. Consider encryption, have a statement in your fee letter establishing expectations, and keep your computer system virus-free. Understand where your e-mails reside. Are they on your hard drive, the server or the hard drive at your ISP?

Ignore Palm and Laptop Safety. Loss of a Palm device or laptop computer could be devastating. Have your lawyers back up their laptops to your server frequently. Invoke passwords at the most secure level on both laptops and Palm devices.

Never Audit Financial Reports. Every time and billing and accounting program has a report that shows how much money you have in your trust account and to whom it belongs. Make it your business to review that report monthly to verify its accuracy and reasonability. The same is true of client bills and cash flow reports. You may have a struggling staff member or software that doesn't link with related software in the way you think it does.

Never Review Spreadsheet Formulas. Do you use spreadsheets to produce numbers that you and your clients rely on? Double-check formulas every time you prepare a spreadsheet. It's easy to accidentally delete a formula-and to re-create one incorrectly.

Distribute Metadata. When you revise a Microsoft Word document, the deleted information is hidden rather than removed. This "metadata" travels with the document when you share it and can be uncovered by a tech-savvy recipient. If you publish the document to PDF, the metadata will not go along. If you must e-mail or otherwise deliver a Word document, consider using macros or a utility program to strip away the metadata.

Rely on Backups. Backups are only as good as your ability to restore from them. Make sure that someone on your staff can demonstrate the restoration of a file from a backup tape. Test the restoration process at least once a year, plus every time your backup system is put into a different computer. Use several tapes and rotate them daily. Keep copies of backups offsite.

Toss Old Computers. You wouldn't put a box of active case paper records on the curb. Don't put a computer on the curb without using a "wipe" utility to completely remove files from the hard drive. Deleting the files, even reformatting the drive, isn't enough-both processes can be undone.

Rely on an Electronic Docket. Electronic systems fail, so redundancy is vital. Print your docket entries, and put them in a notebook or card file. Have someone compare the physical system against the electronic system weekly.

Copy Old Text into Forms. When copying language from existing documents to create new forms, it's very easy to leave in text that doesn't pertain to new usages. The better practice is to create form documents in which you label alternate language, or use document assembly to ensure that the final document is free of unwanted language.

Trust Conflict-of-Interest Systems. Available software helps identify conflicts of interest based on information in your billing and case management systems. Before you rely on these systems, thoroughly understand what information is being put into them, what the software can and does look for and what your staff does with the information.

Storm M. Evans ( is a practice support consultant in Philadelphia, PA, and Articles Editor of Law Practice Management.