Internet Policies

Reprinted from Volume 18, Number 8, December 2001 issue of Internet Roadmap

In a recent roundtable discussion with several managing partners of large firms, I asked whether they had Internet policies for their lawyers and for their staff. Their initial response was that there were no restrictions on lawyers, and that it was difficult to restrict Internet use, even for staff. It seems that the ubiquitous Internet is open for unlimited use for both lawyers and staff in the larger firms. Is there a policy in your firm? Should there be a policy in your firm?

Because of recent awards against law firms for harassment, wrongful termination of employment, and other such torts where discovery of Internet activity has been used as evidence, many firms are now at least discussing having an Internet policy.

The managing partners concluded that they did indeed have policies in place, including the basic one specifying that the Internet (and e-mail) is only to be used for work-related, not personal, matters. Many also blocked perceived pornographic sites. Beyond this, most of the managing partners felt that Internet policies were unenforceable and should exist only in the broadest sense, and mostly to combat claims that the firm did not care about providing a safe and "politically correct" workplace. Some of these firms have the right to read everyone's e-mail, though they caution that this "right" should be exercised sparingly because of the hostility that often results from its implementation.

Other Internet policy issues that came out of the roundtable discussion:

Who reads your e-mail? Many lawyers ask their secretaries to read their e-mail, categorize the messages, and then print them out. There is a certain efficiency in this. Emergency issues can be brought to the attention of the lawyer immediately; some matters can be handled by the secretary without the lawyer getting involved; and other matters can wait until the lawyer has time to deal with them. But what about the e-mail intended by the sender to be private and/or confidential? My advice: Beware! Know your system's functions. Some e-mail systems make a distinction between "confidential" and "private," allowing one type of message to be viewed by anyone in the office.

Electronic storage. Some people, myself included, are packrats, and it doesn't matter whether it's hard copy or electronic. In fact, I have changed PCs on occasion because the amount of data I wanted to store was too large for my equipment to operate efficiently. It does not take long for a system to slow down when you store every e-mail message. Some firms have policies of automatic deletion after so many megabytes or the passage of 30 days. Some limit the number of e-mails arriving on any given day, though this policy might be dangerous-the next e-mail might be the urgent one from a client needing immediate assistance!

Client communications. During the first meeting with your client, be sure to discuss the policies in your office about e-mail communications. If there is a cutoff of any kind, instruct the client on how to get e-mail through the system. An example is marking it urgent (see the codes in your system to determine how to set this up). Another is calling your office (secretary) and alerting the firm that a very important e-mail message will follow shortly. This communication policy discussion should occur in every first meeting, but especially if your firm imposes some type of e-mail limitation for storage reasons.

These are just a few of the Internet policy issues you should be thinking about. What is important to you and your firm? Once you know, put it in writing for everyone-lawyers and staff. Enforce your policies uniformly, not sporadically or unevenly based on one's position in the firm.

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