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Our flight to Hartford had been delayed for minor repairs to the potable water system on the stretch Boeing 727. The captain’s announcement of the delayed departure was like the firing of a starter’s pistol, as dozens of cellphones beeped to life. Suddenly, the serene cabin ambiance was shattered by the cacophony of dozens of cellphone calls. It is more than a little distracting to listen to one end of a dozen urgent business calls. It’s all part of the fabric of our 24/7 business world. “John, I told marketing last week that we needed the report by Monday . . . Yeah, follow up and get it done . . . No excuses.” “Mary, it’s me. I quoted $16,500 with the full extension. I think that’s the best we could do . . . No, that won’t do any good at all.” “Pete? . . . Mike. Have you heard back on the Omaha deal? I think there is room for some progress there . . . I know they’ve threatened a lawsuit, but, damn it, that’s just a bluff.” All manner of private confidential corporate information flying around the cabin of our plane. No phone booth in sight for these conferences filled with sensitive information. When it comes to cellphone urgency, there’s a bizarre assumption that each cell comes with an invisible privacy protector-like the old “Gardol Shield” of toothpaste marketing fame. Electronic communications are fraught with security risks, many of which are easily avoidable, if anyone cared. But apparently, no one on this flight to Hartford cared at all. “I’ll call you when I get in. We need to talk about the Bedford contract . . . .No, it’s going forward, but our general counsel has told me there are serious antitrust issues involved . . . .Oh, we can solve them but it’ll take some real sleight of hand.” “Probably the best meal I’ve had in quite some time . . . .Too bad Paul is so difficult. His table manners are simply horrible . . . .Oh, you too? Great meal, terrible company . . . .No, I won’t be dining with him again until we renegotiate the contract.” Threatened litigation. Antitrust issues that can be finessed. Gossip about social boors. Shout it all out to the hills. Amazing! Is nothing private? Is nothing confidential? Does a cellphone transport one to another planet? Have cellphone users lost all sense of place, perspective? Do they have any clue about their unintended audience? The recent assault on my ears on that delayed flight to Hartford caused me to revisit the mental inventory I’ve collected over the years of urban legends in the legal profession that deal with precisely this issue-when juicy information falls into the wrong set of ears, eyes and hands. It is almost always due to carelessness, and in this day and age, when we are less on our guard about our privacy, we can learn from these legendary examples, culled over the decades from the collective memory of the profession, and they are tales worth sharing with young lawyers just starting out. Attorney-client confidences and the legal privilege that protects them are bedrock principles of our profession. But these confidences can be jeopardized in simple and senseless ways. This wireless wilderness we live in has sharply increased the ways in which lawyers can breach confidences, for example, in careless cellphone conversations about sensitive business matters that occur regularly on crowded commuter trains. The dangers have always existed; it’s simply that technology in recent years, has, as Emeril might say, “taken it up a notch.” In August, an associate at a large Chicago firm (not my own) left a belligerent message-using especially foul language-on an adversary’s voice mail. Within days, the message (as well as the names of all involved) was reported in the press and broadcast all over the world on the Internet. Or consider more common examples: Who hasn’t heard tales of casual chatter in an office elevator about a client matter before an audience of complete strangers, comprised of Heaven knows who, all making mental notes of valuable tidbits and “quotable quotes” for future use. Best advice: Talk about the weather, or sports or just keep your mouth shut during the descent. Remember: Loose lips sink ships (and careers). Even in an age of high tech, the old-fashioned, common sense rules still apply. Be wary of lawyer conversations in law-office and courthouse restrooms about pending cases, transactions or strategies for settlement negotiations, all within eavesdrop range of occupied stalls. There’s no telling who might be in there. Be particularly on guard during breaks in depositions, settlement meetings, collective bargaining sessions, deal negotiations and closings. A simple rule of thumb: Never discuss a client matter in restrooms or elevators-no exceptions. If your client initiates a conversation, gently suggest that you talk later. If you do legal work on commercial airline flights, be wary of your surroundings. For example, when you’re traveling in seat 13C on a business trip, reviewing a confidential memo containing the strategic plan for defense of a class action, be mindful of who may be reading over your shoulder from seat 13B or D, or even 14D. You might think it far- fetched that someone else on the plane would be interested in lawsuits. But why? You are a lawyer and you are on the plane; so, there may be others. This same important rule applies particularly to being on guard against the “video voyeur”-that fellow passenger who throughout the flight carefully studies out of the corner of his eye everything downloaded onto his fellow passengers’ laptop screens (who knows what he’s hoping to see-cheesecake? insider stock tips?-but voyeurs tend not to be picky). Of course, if you use your airline seat as a portable office, never use the seat-back pocket as a temporary file cabinet. As you might expect, this rule is based on a sad and reportedly true story told on himself by a lawyer practicing in Dallas. On a business trip to New York, he was editing a highly confidential memorandum which he stored in the seat-back pocket. Several cocktails, wine and dinner followed, and the revised memo was not retrieved after the flight arrived at LaGuardia. Ouch! One can only hope that the memo was thrown in the trash by the aircraft cleaning crew and not discovered by another bored lawyer on a subsequent trip while he was looking for the in-flight magazine. Office e-mail also can become an embarrassing trap for the unwary. Perhaps because of its simplicity, speed and seeming informality, e-mail seems to invite impulsive, off-the-cuff remarks-often politically incorrect, sometimes ticking time bombs. Cautionary e-mail facts Folks put remarkably stupid things in e-mails that they wouldn’t dream of including in a written office memorandum. Although those embarrassing, potentially legally damaging streams of consciousness may be marked “confidential,” they aren’t. Most companies and law firms reserve the right to review any document on their computer system. Unless e-mails are protected by a legally recognized privilege, they are discoverable. Also, remember that the message may be deleted from your personal computer files, but the full text can be retrieved from the computer system hard drive. This technological fact has spawned a cottage industry of cybersleuths and forensic computer experts who specialize in retrieving legally devastating-not to mention mortally embarrassing-evidence from gigabytes of “deleted” corporate e-mail. Finally, always double-check the addressee of your e-mail. Consider the story that a friend-we’ll call him the Whippersnapper-who is a young corporate executive in a Fortune 500 company, tells about himself. A fellow hotshot-we’ll call him the Best Pal-in another department sent the Whippersnapper an e-mail. Best Pal bluntly expressed his anger over the company chairman’s ranting and raging over the disappointing first-quarter results of Best Pal’s division. Best Pal included the chairman’s message as an attachment to his e-mail. Whippersnapper opened the attachment, agreed wholeheartedly with Best Pal’s sentiments, immediately clicked on the reply icon, and quickly typed his sarcastic response: “That’s the chairman for you! The old fool hardly should be surprised by the first quarter numbers. They are the direct and predictable result of his idiotic strategic plan for 2002 that he unveiled at our annual sales meeting. What a complete bozo!!! Any first year in B-school could have done a better plan. The old codger is going to run this company into the ground!!” As he was about to click on the “send” icon, Whippersnapper noticed that he was replying not to Best Pal, but to the old codger himself, Chairman Bozo. That frightening recognition may have saved his career. Today, he is executive vice president of the company, and the old codger, who is now chairman emeritus, is none the wiser. Moral of the story: Never kibitz online. Do it verbally, particularly when your e-mail contains double or triple exclamation marks. Our electronic age offers an unprecedented world of efficiency and convenience, but at the same time we have lowered our guard about privacy. Here are a few black-letter rules to learn at the beginning of your career and stick to: Concentrate on nonlegal business in restrooms; use your cellphone discreetly or not at all; be wary of video voyeurs; never leave top-secret memoranda on airplanes (or maybe have just one glass of wine); and don’t vent in e-mails. Gerald Skoning is a senior partner at Chicago’s Seyfarth Shaw.

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