May 22, 2017

ABA Formal Ethics Opinion Issued Regarding Secured Communications of Client Information

On Thursday, May 11, 2017, the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility released Formal Opinion 477, “Securing Communication of Protected Client Information.” The opinion discusses internet transmission of protected client information, concluding that:

A lawyer generally may transmit information relating to the representation of a client over the internet without violating the Model Rules of Professional Conduct where the lawyer has undertaken reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized access. However, a lawyer may be required to take special security precautions to protect against the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information when required by an agreement with the client or by law, or when the nature of the information requires a higher degree of security.

Formal Opinion 477 is an update to the basic confidentiality requirements addressed in Formal Opinion 99-413. The opinion was issued in response to the 2012 amendments to the ABA Model Rules in which technological competency was enunciated. This opinion discusses cybersecurity and measures that lawyers should take to safeguard client information, electing to reject requirements for specific security measures in favor of a fact-specific approach to business security obligations.

The opinion offers guidance on what reasonable steps an attorney may undertake in response to a cybersecurity threat, including:

  1. Understand the nature of the threat;
  2. Understand how confidential client information is transmitted and where it is stored;
  3. Understand and use reasonable security measures;
  4. Determine how electronic communications about client matters should be protected;
  5. Label confidential client information;
  6. Train lawyers and nonlawyer assistants in technology and information security; and
  7. Conduct due diligence on vendors providing communication technology.

To read the entire opinion, click here.