AS THE LAWYER’S illegible scrawl is replaced with email and Microsoft technology, law firms across Australia are becoming victims of an e-document culture, in which hidden information can be easily accessed and damaging situations are rife.
In an effort to minimise its technology-based risk, law firm Freehills last week announced the completion of the first stage of the implementation of Workshare Professional 4 as part of a risk-mitigation strategy around all Microsoft Office documents and emails handled by the firm.
With more than 2,000 lawyers and employees handling a high volume of sensitive documents, often with up to 20 authors and 700 pages in length, Freehills said it needed to implement a system in which “metadata”, hidden within documents, was stripped out before being sent out to clients or to other law firms working with the firm.
Too often, electronic document creation tools leave hidden information in a document that a business will not be able to identify or remove. Freehills informational services director, Russell Wright, and applications and e-business manager, Miles Ashcroft, said this can lead to publicly embarrassing or damaging situations in inadvertently revealing personnel, customer, business, and other confidential matters.
Businesses have an increasing chance of facing embarrassing situations as they embrace technology, Ashcroft said last week. It is easy to send the wrong attachment, for example, or send an email to the wrong group of people. This new risk-mitigation strategy lessens the possibilities of such mistakes, he said.
The Workshare Professional 4 technology will improve the management of multiple changes by multiple authors, and will verify the accuracy of these documents. The firm needed to introduce a more understandable audit trail of changes made to documents, as well as an accurate and traceable history of where documents have been emailed within an external environment.
“Electronic document creation and email communication can provide tremendous efficiency benefits, however, as the most difficult form of communication to manage, it poses a substantial risk to business that most people are simply unaware of,” Wright said.
Clients in the United States in particular are beginning to expect such regulation of risk, Ashcroft told Lawyers Weekly. “Some international clients are working in a fairly rigorous regulatory environment and they expect us to comply in how we deal with their information. Sarbanes Oxley, [the US governance law], is one example of this sort of regulation,” he said.
“We haven’t had people say ‘do X,Y and Z’, but there is an expectation that we will have the same rigour in terms of risk management around how we deal with their data. That would be expected, as regulatory authorities in their jurisdictions would expect it of them,” Ashcroft said.
The new technology provides an extra level of management of risk around the handling of documents and changing of documents and also the stripping of metadata, Ashcroft said.
Lawyers and partners at the firm have responded well to the new technology, said Ashcroft. “Anything that involves a change in terms of how people work requires some careful planning, but in general the response has been one of welcoming the change because they see it as adding some further rigour to how they work with client information.
“They see it as providing a clearly defined process,” he said.